Established a decade ago at the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa, the Stephen Lewis Foundation has made a profound impact in several African countries, including Kenya, where there has been a decline in HIV prevalence in the past few years.
Partnering with over 300 community-based organizations in 15 African countries hardest hit by the AIDS pandemic, the Foundation has funded over 700 initiatives. These grassroots groups are a lifeline for their communities
In Kenya, the Foundation works with at least 15 non-governmental organizations, including WEM Integrated Health Services (WEMIHS), co-founded by Canadian-educated Wairimu Mungai, who is also the organization’s executive director.
“The Stephen Lewis Foundation has complemented the Kenyan government’s objectives of responding to HIV/AIDS,” she said. “But more importantly, its support of the grandmothers who bear the burden of caring for orphans and vulnerable children is exceptional. That’s not an area of intervention that’s widely known and funded.”
WEMHIS is a nationally recognized program with a track record of best practices in prevention and behavior change for youth, antiretroviral therapy-adherence education, psychological support for people living with HIV/AIDS and initiatives for sustainable livelihoods such as the Grandmother Resilience & Nurturing project, which addresses the economic, psychological and social impacts on grandmothers providing care to their orphaned grandchildren.
Mungai and two other community and HIV activists are participating in a two-week tour from Winnipeg to Windsor to engage labour locals across the province, raise HIV/AIDS awareness and build community relationships.
The tour provides a forum for activists to tell their stories, share their expertise and discuss the challenges and triumphs in dealing with the ravages of AIDS in their communities and workplaces. It also provides labour activists with an opportunity to increase their understanding and learn about the inventive and effective approaches that grassroots African organizations have pioneered.
“This solidarity tour is meaningful for me,” said Mungai. “It’s necessary that we continue to raise HIV/AIDS awareness.”
After graduating with a nutrition & food system administration degree from the University of New York at Buffalo, Mungai received a Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) award to pursue her Master’s in curriculum development & training at Queen’s University.
“I have a lot of good memories of the two-and-a-half years I spent at Queen’s,” said Mungai. “I took great advantage of the offer to study here even though it meant that I was away from my family for an extended period time. It was however worth it because the education and training I received in Canada have provided me with the tools to make a meaningful contribution in my country. It was always my plan to return to Kenya because I felt I had a greater responsibility to serve back there.”
This is Mungai’s third visit to Canada since graduating from Queen’s in 1994. She attended the International Aids Conference in Toronto in 2006 and a forum in Ottawa early last year.
The other participants in the two-week solidarity tour are Zimbabwe’s Musasa Project executive director, Netty Musanhu and Nathan Nhlane, the national co-coordinator of the Zambia National Antiretroviral Support (ZNARVS) program.
The Musasa Project provides shelter, psychological, peer counselling and legal support services for women who are the victims of gender-based violence.
“One of the issues that we keep grappling with is the link between HIV, violence and the economic empowerment of women,” said Musanhu, who has two law degrees from the University of Zimbabwe and is a member of Zimbabwe’s Anti-Violence Council and the Private & Voluntary Organizations Board. “As long as we do not talk about and link all the responses which necessitate the economic empowerment of women, they will continue to bear the burden and be the receivers of violence in the community.”
Nhlane said he’s excited to be part of the solidarity tour.
“It is a great opportunity to meet the people who have supported the work that ZNARVS is doing and the work that is happening in Africa as a whole,” he said.