Kenya: Soccer tourney brings health care too

By Jeffrey Allen, OneWorld US

WASHINGTON, Sep 4 ( - For many at last month's regional soccer tournament in Kenya's Dago village, the side event was a lifesaver; hundreds of local people received free medical checkups, eye and dental exams, and HIV testing and counseling.

What's the Story?

Soccer is a mainstay for the people of Dago, who live a largely agricultural existence some six hours by bus from the capital city of Nairobi. But basic health care is relatively scarce, and information about nutrition, HIV/AIDS, and other health issues is in short supply.

So a local community group decided to capitalize on one to boost the other, organizing the Kick It With Kenya soccer tournament and health fair in August this year.

The five days of men's soccer and women's netball games were greeted as a welcome change of pace from everyday life by the 3,000 people in the stands each day as well as the 360 players and coaches and dozens of referees and volunteer tournament officials and health care workers.

The HIV/AIDS Counseling and Testing team got perhaps the greatest workout of all. Over 550 local people were tested for HIV by the five-person team, and the demand was so strong that there could have been twice as many testers and counselors on hand, said tournament organizer Patrick Odoyo.

Soccer fans stopped by the local primary school, where counselors would explain the basics of HIV/AIDS -- and the ramifications of a positive test result -- before taking two samples of blood, which were both tested to ensure the accuracy of all results.

While the vast majority of those tested were HIV-free, 34 local people -- about 6 percent of those tested -- learned that they are living with the virus. Each was given additional counseling and referred to a local program that will help them cope with the health, family, and societal issues that come along with a positive test result.

Several teams of local health workers and specialists were also on hand to provide medical checkups for several hundred children and adults -- a rare luxury for people in this part of the world.

Ten malnourished children were treated. Mare than 70 got immunizations. Over 60 dental exams and 200 eye exams were conducted, and 100 people got free eyeglasses.

And of course, there was soccer -- and netball, a derivative of basketball that's particularly popular among British Commonwealth nations. In addition to the tournaments pitting local teams against each other, a coaches clinic was organized and a Kenyan professional team brought in to play a match against an All-Star team of local players. (The professionals won, 7-0.)

"Kick It With Kenya was an overwhelming success," said Odoyo in an email to supporters after the tournament's conclusion. "We had tremendous support from people donating soccer balls, uniforms, socks, soccer training manuals, water filtration buckets, baseball caps, helping with training the Dago players, and delivery of donations from the United States, among numerous other things."

Odoyo hopes the success of this year's tournament will help drive funding to make the event, which was co-organized by the Seattle-based nonprofit organization Village Volunteers, an annual affair.

Dago Takes on AIDS Crisis

Dago village's efforts to confront the AIDS crisis have been spearheaded by Odoyo's mother, Pamela Adoyo, and the women's group she coordinates.

For her efforts, Adoyo was voted one of OneWorld's People of the Year in 2008.

The 45 women in her volunteer group regularly check in on the 365 or so people in the region living with HIV/AIDS, and the 2,000+ children orphaned or otherwise impacted by the epidemic.

In addition to looking after the sick and helping them get anti-retroviral drugs and medical attention when necessary, the caregivers work with other nonprofit organizations to provide mosquito nets and blankets and get immune supplements for emaciated children. They also hold seminars in the area to help local people better understand what they can do to protect and improve their health.

And they've even helped widows build houses. Most of the caregivers are AIDS widows themselves.

Adoyo has also built an orphanage, where a few dozen children live, and dozens more come to study each day.

Asked about the biggest challenges her women's group faces, Adoyo said: "The stigmatization, cultural beliefs, and practices that help in HIV/AIDS spread -- wife inheritance, alcoholism, early marriages, and unprotected sex, medical care, and support for the affected. For the infected, educating the society on how to care for the sick, [and] making the orphans understand what has happened to their parents and brothers."

Adoyo was responding to questions posed by OneWorld readers in March after her Person of the Year nomination.

"We also have problems of how to get the sick to health care centers for treatments, VCT [voluntary counseling and testing], collection of medicines, and referrals. Dago is five kilometers [three miles] from the nearest health care center and thus most of families can not afford to take their sick people for such services."

But even before the successful Kick it With Kenya program, Adoyo was optimistic.

"Being HIV-positive is not the end of life," she told one OneWorld reader. "Life begins after knowing your HIV status. If you are positive, you live positively, and if you are negative, you take good care of yourself." [Read more about Adoyo's work in OneWorld's People of 2008 edition of Perspectives Magazine.]

Background: Poverty, Health, and Politics in Kenya

Recent statistics show that there is reason for optimism in Kenya. The country's national HIV/AIDS rate has gone down from about 10 percent of the population living with the virus in the late 1990s to 7.8 percent by 2008, although the number had been as low as 5.1 percent as recently as 2006. The National AIDS Control Council attributed much of the improvement to greater knowledge of the disease among local people and their resulting changes in behavior.

Anti-retroviral drugs are now available free of charge, but only about half of those needing the drugs are getting them, and Kenya still relies heavily on international support for the money needed to buy the drugs and run the program.

To make matters worse, Kenya, like many other countries worldwide is mired in a prolonged food crisis.

Some 3.8 million Kenyans are in need of food aid this year, according to the World Food Programme (WFP), as a result of drought and subsequent high food prices. Successive years of drought up to 2006 compelled the WFP to provide support for over 3 million people, and then severe floods towards the end of 2006 affected a further 700,000, most of them cut off from help by inadequate roads.

"The cycle of drought and floods is known to be especially sensitive to the impact of climate change, which looms in the background as a threat to food security," notes volunteer editor Keith Child, who compiled the Kenya Country Guide for

Poverty indicators such as child and infant mortality are also moving in the wrong direction, warns the Kenya guide, which places significant blame on the violence sparked by the disputed presidential election in December 2007.