KISUMU, Kenya—George Musingo is an English teacher at Day Secondary School in western Kenya. A father of five, Musingo holds credentials in religious studies and is currently pursuing a master's degree in literature. He is a member of Mwalimu Savings and Credit Co-operative (SACCO), where he serves as a peer leader and educator who helps spearhead efforts by one of Kenya's largest credit unions to increase HIV/AIDS awareness and understanding among his fellow members.
Musingo has embraced this role because he himself is HIV-positive, a condition he discovered in 2000 after his wife died from the disease in 1999 and left him to raise their children alone. Since that time, Musingo has undertaken a second master's degree to explore the impact that HIV-positive disclosure has on the educational community, and he maintains his peer leader position at Mwalimu, one of the Kenyan SACCOs supported by World Council of Credit Unions' (WOCCU) development efforts.
"I have become an HIV/AIDS activist to save the teaching community in Kenya from the stigma and discrimination associated with the disease," said Musingo, one of three HIV/AIDS peer leaders who spoke at WOCCU's African SACCO Technical Conference at Banjul, The Gambia in October. "It would be my joy if HIV/AIDS sufferers could die in dignity, rather than in denial."
Musingo is one of many such peer educators involved in the "Mwalimu Stop AIDS" program in Kenya, which attempts to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS through member education and advocacy. More members are reportedly listening and more of those afflicted by the pandemic are gaining access to critical antiretroviral therapies used to combat the illness. Unfortunately, as World AIDS Day 2008 dawns on Dec. 1, HIV/AIDS continues its deadly global spread at an alarming rate.
At the end of 2007, an estimated 32.7 million people were infected by HIV/AIDS worldwide, according to a report issued by the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Joint Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). The rise in the number of sufferers has slowed thanks to better education and increased access to drugs, with some 3 million new patients receiving critical antiretroviral therapy last year. Despite increased efforts, in 2007 an additional 2.5 million people contracted HIV/AIDS, and 2.1 million died from the disease. It is estimated that 68 percent of sufferers worldwide live in sub-Saharan African countries like Kenya.
More than 3 million people in Kenya, including 16% of the adult population, are HIV-positive. Kenya is one of eight countries worldwide that has seen an increase in the total number of HIV/AIDS cases during the past year, according to UNAIDS statistics.
"HIV/AIDS is a serious crisis in Kenya, and the majority of those who are HIV-positive do not know their status," Musingo said. "Testing for HIV is only compulsory for mothers who have gone for prenatal care and criminals convicted of sexual offenses. These forms of testing are a small percentage on which to base the national statistics."
WOCCU's Cooperative Development Program, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, supported the launch of an HIV/AIDS peer educator program with Mwalimu SACCO in 2006. The peer education model is based on the idea that groups of members acting as change agents and opinion leaders can be trained to effectively disseminate information and influence their communities.
WOCCU and Mwalimu initiated the program in partnership with JHPIEGO, an international health organization affiliated with The Johns Hopkins University. Currently, the Mwalimu Stop AIDS program is supervised by three program managers who oversee the work of 24 peer leaders and 264 peer educators from seven of Kenya's eight provinces. Additionally, 300 Mwalimu delegates (elected regional SACCO representatives) received introductory training on HIV/AIDS peer education in April 2008.
"SACCOs are the hub of individuals' economic development and almost all professionals and employees have savings programs," Musingo said. "Life is about buying, selling, saving and saving well. SACCOs, therefore, become the best choice to disseminate this information because all people, including the poor, aspire to have formidable savings accounts."
Musingo, who hopes to remarry in the near future, was nominated in June by the Office of the President of Kenya to become a member of the National Platform for Risk Reduction. The Kenyan government is encouraging the population to be tested for HIV/AIDS and qualify for free diagnosis and treatment, according to Musingo, but the process is proceeding slowly.
"In Kenya, there are many other activists, but most of them are women," Musingo added. "Women are more honest and sincere about life than men. Professional men who are HIV/AIDS activists are very few."
World Council of Credit Unions is the global trade association and development agency for credit unions. World Council promotes the sustainable development of credit unions and other financial cooperatives around the world to empower people through access to high quality and affordable financial services. World Council advocates on behalf of the global credit union system before international organizations and works with national governments to improve legislation and regulation. Its technical assistance programs introduce new tools and technologies to strengthen credit unions' financial performance and increase their outreach.
World Council has implemented more than 290 technical assistance programs in 71 countries. Worldwide, 57,000 credit unions in 105 countries serve 217 million people. Learn more about World Council's impact around the world at www.woccu.org.