Matchmaking with a difference
For Francis Adongo Otieno, 47, this World Aids Day is a special event. He had contemplated suicide after he was diagnosed with HIV.
“I was totally isolated by members of the community. I felt alone because of the condition,” says Otieno.
He changed his mind after multiple counselling sessions and an assurance that availability of Anti-retrovirals (ARVs) will allow him to live longer and at the same time be of value to society.
“I thanked God. He knew why I got infected. It is then I decided to be of value to both the infected and affected,” he says.
He has been on ARVs for two decades, and resolved to deliver hope to people like him living with the condition.
He decided to establish the Nyamira county-based Hope for Future support group in 2002.
“Drugs were not readily available then unlike today. ARVs were for the privileged. The rate at which our members succumbed was alarming.
The immediate task was to raise cash to buy the drugs and raise cash to support our own,” said Otieno in an interview from Nyamira.
A 2018 report indicates that Nyamira is among counties with the highest adult HIV prevalence rate of 4.2 per cent.
The support group faced the risk of being rendered irrelevant as drugs became available with the passage of time.
“Members still faced other problems. Loneliness haunted them once loved ones passed on.
This was a gap that needed to be filled,” said Otieno, who set up Hope Dating Services programme run by the group of over 400 members.
“This is a service I found necessary from my own experience after losing my first wife. Clients I counsel return to torment me with marriage queries,” he says.
Marriage seekers, after counselling sessions enquire about the possibility of a union once assured of living longer on ARVs.
“The infection is highly stigmatised. They approach me in confidence because of the faith they have in the service,” says Otieno.
The initial step is to get details of a partner; a potential spouse wants to know of things such as tribe, height, colour, age and a glimpse of a general view of their personality.
“We then go to our data bank to dig for matching pairs then share the information,” says Otieno.
This year, 10 potential spouses have been linked and are living happily together thanks to a service, he says, that often attains an 80 per cent success.
But before the arrangement, anyone seeking to be linked is subjected to a serious session of being interrogated to establish the person is a carrier to curb infiltration of the service by conmen.
“Some of us are wealthy and have properties. Some with the intention to disinher the infected approach us with ulterior motive.
We have to be vigilant,” says Otieno. He makes follow ups and takes part in dowry negotiations, besides being present at traditional marriage rituals and recently a church wedding last year.
Real estate expert specialised in floor tiles in Nakuru Vincent Ochieng was dumped by his wife who infected him and fled with two of his children three years ago.
“I was lonely and needed someone with similar condition to marry. That is when I got the service from Hope.
There were too many options, but could not just settle on any. Finally I got by dream wife,” says Ochieng.
“I plan to walk my spouse down the aisle at the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) where I worship,” says Otieno, who said is in regular touch with and supports his children.
Dwindling donor support and the onset of Covid-19 has impacted negatively on the operations of the support group, whose annual budget amounts to Sh820,000 for administration, fees for students and welfare.
Cyphrene Wasike from the National Aids Control Council (NACC) says financing has been at crossroads, with donors not scaling up their support since US President Donald Trump came to power.
The transition of Kenya from a poor country to lower middle income country status has also affected funding.
This means the country has to contribute over 50 per cent of financing the epidemic from domestic sources.
At the moment, Kenya is contributing at 31 per cent of all finances spent on HIV and Aids response.