Kenyan model and activist Chris Waigwa stars in the latest MMSCENE PORTRAITS series titled “Portrait of Chris Waigwa” lensed by photographer Justin Anantawan.
As a gay man with HIV, Justin Anantawan has made it his mission in life to be visible as an activist and help other MSMs who are vulnerable to being infected with or living with the virus. Since 2019, he has been working in Kenya, photographing stories on HIV/AIDS in the gay community and carrying out outreach activities such as counselling, HIV testing and condom/lube distribution. Interventions like these are important as the Kenyan MSM community has an HIV prevalence rate of 18.3%, which is disproportionately higher than the overall national prevalence of 4.9%.
“I do this work because I know the emotional pain that comes with learning to accept an HIV diagnosis and dealing with stigma from other men in the community. Luckily, I have not been alone in this mission. Chris Waigwa, a local model I scouted here in 2019, my close friend, fellow baking enthusiast and photographic muse (featured in this editorial), also works in the field as an HTS (HIV testing service) provider and adherence counsellor. We work together to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS among the Kenyan gay community.“
Justin has interviewed Chris exclusively for MMSCENE about his work as an activist and the barriers gay men in Kenya face when it comes to sexual health. Read the interview below:
What is the social climate like for MSMs in Kenya?
It’s tense. To be queer is still considered wrong and immoral by most Kenyans. That being said, I feel that the younger generation is becoming more inclusive. With access to information from the internet, Kenyan youth are coming to an understanding that being queer is not a choice and that queer people are not evil. Now more than ever, there are multiple safe spaces where queer Kenyans can be themselves freely. Kenya is slowly but surely accepting the LGBTQI+ community.
What is the cause of this homophobia? How does homophobia contribute to HIV infections in the MSM community?
I don’t know what the cause of homophobia is. But I know that it is influenced by some corroded religious teachings, religion being a large part of Kenya’s culture. In Kenya, men who have sex with men find it hard to access material such as lube because of the stigma surrounding anal sex. Accessing treatment in government facilities is a challenge also due to stigma against gay sex. This results in men having sex without using the essential commodities like condoms and lubes and in case of infection, they are hesitant to seek help in fear of being judged and exposed.
What is your role as an HTS provider? Which organizations do you work with?
My role as a HTS provider is to test people for HIV, educate them and support them through the process. I work with Ishtar Wellness Centre as a locum HTS provider.
What are some barriers to men getting tested for HIV in Kenya?
Firstly there is stigma. Being weary of the kinds of questions they’ll get asked during testing, queer men don’t feel comfortable talking about their bedroom affairs with a stranger, be it a HTS provider, nurse or doctor, who could potentially be homophobic.
Secondly, lack of information. Some people don’t know the importance of regular testing. Without this knowledge, some clients take years before having a HIV test done. We usually recommend that everybody gets tested every three months.
We have some inclusive wellness centers in Kenya, but just a handful. Some queer folk have to travel across counties just to access these facilities where they can get services without discrimination.
What is your role as an adherence counselor?
I work to support people living with HIV through the process of treatment. We try to formulate individualized treatment plans with the client to ensure that they are comfortable with the ART routine.
What are some barriers to adherence amongst HIV positive men?
Again, a major barrier is stigma. In fear if getting found out, many people would rather forfeit medication than taking them around their friends or family. To avoid this, I encourage my clients to disclose their status to a loved one, someone who they would trust so that they have a safe environment as they under go treatment.
Sometimes, when a client learns that they’re HIV positive, they become overwhelmed with negative thoughts and feelings. They become anxious, depressed and even suicidal. This affects their behavior and they may start having no regard for treatment. In this case, I make sure to follow up with the client routinely and I refer them to a psychotherapist who gives them a mire wholesome support with regard to their mental health.
How can HIV stigma be combatted?
Comprehensive education about HIV can help greatly. If people knew current information about HIV, nobody in their right mind would remind to be hateful and insensitive towards people living with HIV. Information such as how HIV is transmitted, how HIV affects someone’s health, how the ART works and the U=U… having these conversations about these topics could really help end stigma.
You talked about U=U, what does this mean?
Undetectable = Untransmittable. This means, when person who has HIV gets tested, and the result comes as ‘negative,’ Their viral load (number of copies of the virus per ml of blood) is so low due to regularly taking their mediations that it cannot be detected by certain standard tests. They are still HIV positive but they cannot transmit the virus because they have achieved what we call viral suppression. If a person stops taking their medication consistently, their viral load can rise again resulting in a greater chance of infection.
How has COVID-19 affected HIV infections, adherence and the work of HIV organizations in Kenya?
When COVID came, many people lost their jobs. Quite a number of Kenyan MSMs resorted to sex work. This of course put them at an increased risk of getting infected with HIV. We have had people getting infected for this reason. On the other hand, with the COVID precautions, less men are having meet-ups for sex. I feel that this has helped mitigate the risks if HIV infection.
The organization which I work for, Ishtar Wellness centre, usually runs outreaches every other week. We mobilize MSMs in the community and we provide them with free testing and commodities (condoms and lubes.) We also educate them on Sexual health. Since COVID, it has been difficult organizing these outreaches. We have been involving fewer MSMs in our outreach events due to the COVID regulations.
What are ways that sexual health organizations are recommending for MSMs to protect themselves from HIV and know their status?
We emphasize using condoms and lube consistently and correctly. Apart from that there’s other measures of preventing infection such as PrEP and PEP. These are drugs which prevent HIV infection. They are very effective and I usually recommend it to all my friends and clients.
We also have self testing kits. Self test kits are very convenient especially for people who work 9-5. It is hard for them to get time to visit the facilities for testing. Most queer friendly facilities are based in Nairobi so sometimes queer folk living outside Nairobi can’t make the trip every 3 months. So we give them a few test kits and then follow up every three months by calling them or via text. When a client gets a positive result, we invite them for retesting, counseling and enrollment for treatment.
What are your hopes for the MSM community in Kenya? How can this goal be achieved in society?
I hope that one day soon my country comes recognize the LGBTQI+ #repeal162. The queer community deserves to access spaces (government/private) in Kenya without having to fear discrimination or worse. We work to build this country just like anybody else, it is our home and we shouldn’t be made to feel like we don’t belong.
This can be achieved through so many ways. I feel that right now, queer representation is really helping us to get there. There are many openly queer Kenyans who are doing the absolute most on social media and we love to see it! Seeing them daily on my feed, watching them be themselves, it makes me feel reassured that I am not alone. There is so much power in sharing your story and living your truth.