Homa Bay, Kenya – They call her Mother Teresa, a force to be reckoned with. She’s even known as the ‘Iron Lady’ for her tough nature. She is tall, energetic, with an infectious smile, exuding confidence and humility.
Caroline Osogo is a former nun turned activist who has dedicated her entire life to fighting for the rights of others. She left the Convent in 1999 discovering a mission of helping people and saving lives in her community.
Located in Western Kenya off Lake Victoria, Homa Bay is idyllic, green and breathtaking. Its beauty—studded with golden sunsets, rolling hills set against the immense lake—Africa’s largest inland fishery—makes you forget, at least briefly, where you are. The painful reality is that Homa Bay, both a town and a bay, has the highest number of HIV-infected people in Kenya.
As one of the top public health issues today, the HIV epidemic first hit Homa Bay in 1996. That year Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was called in for emergency response to post-election violence when they realized the existence of the HIV epidemic, which led to the medical aid organization opening its first HIV/AIDS program in the country.
The HIV epidemic continues today unabated with the rate of new infections (incidents) increasing by 2% per year in Ndhiwa, a sub county of Homa Bay, according to MSF. The latest Kenya HIV Estimates Report puts HIV prevalence among people aged 15-49 at an alarming 25.7% in Homa Bay compared to the national average of 6.0%.
Homa Bay County has the highest HIV prevalence rate in the country
Efforts by MSF, the Ministry of Health and county officials are ongoing, whereby control of the MSF clinic was handed over to the local government last year. MSF has health facilities all over Homa Bay, and through the help of community outreach teams and counselors, they go household-to-household, village-to-village, to test people for HIV as part of their new program aimed at reducing the number of new infections.
Osogo, a community leader, knows that it will take more than just local and international aid agencies to bring about change and reduce new infections. She has seen people firsthand suffering from HIV/AIDS so she is using her platform to lead a fight of her own.
“I have seen parents die and leave young children who are already infected with HIV virus,” said Osogo, which is why she pushes for condom use as a way to combat the epidemic. “If the parents were encouraged to use condom maybe they would have increased another lifespan. They would have been there to support their children and they would have been there to see another day.”
Osogo, who still dons her habit, uses faith and conviction to push along her pro-condom message and urges the Catholic Church to change its stance on contraception.
“I think the Catholic Church should stand up and accept the use of contraceptives because even we, in the Church, in our families, there is somebody who has died from HIV/AIDS,” said Osogo.
Her passion and commitment to help the most vulnerable extends to orphans, those children that have either lost their parents to HIV or simply been abandoned by them, for example in a pit latrine. Currently she has 205 orphans, most of them in boarding schools through her funding. She sees all of them as her kids, and she has legally adopted seven—the youngest ones that currently live with her in town.
Osogo has legally adopted seven young children, but in total she supports 205 orphans
She also has property covering six acres in the countryside, complete with a summer cottage and garden, but she prefers staying at her house in town with her youngest children so she can “make sure they go to school.” She actually purchased the land seven years ago as a way to financially support her orphans. Walking in her garden you can find beans, maize, mangoes, oranges, avocados and papayas to name a few. She also has turkeys and chickens running around. She sells her fruit, vegetables, and poultry in the market and makes good money, especially from the turkeys.
Another source of income is her restaurant called the Uni-view Hotel, where she has 11 of her older children working as employees. Her restaurant, which is always packed, is known for serving up great, traditional dishes like fresh fish and ugali. And, she also receives occasional donations to her NGO, Save the Destitute, from foreigners, either from those visiting Homa Bay or those that have just heard about her work.
She works with some of her older children in her restaurant, Uni-view Hotel
Even though Osogo has received tremendous support from the community for her advocacy work, she still faces challenges. Like how some people think she will get HIV from working with and touching HIV-positive people. And there are those who question why she left the Church in the first place, those critics who don’t understand her life’s work. They still ask: Why did you leave Convent? Why are you living alone?
Her response is simple. “I want to make an impact on the lives of the people.”
The impact on her children is profound, but it hasn’t been easy. With some of her older children whom she has raised, she feels frustrated, as any parent would, when they keep things bottled inside or don’t take her advice. Also, she has to be smart about managing her finances and requesting funding because of the sheer number of children she has to look after.
“I have a very big group of children who need a lot help so I have to know there is a balance between what they eat, their education, what they wear, and it all calls for money,” she said, adding that she doesn’t want to “let them down.”
For Osogo, rescuing orphans and promoting safe sex and the use of condoms is only part of the solution. Half of the women in Homa Bay have HIV by the age of 30, according to MSF. She strongly believes that social change will only come from empowering girls and women.
Cultural practices in Homa Bay, a predominately Luo community, are deeply rooted in society, especially the practice of inheritance. A widow has to be inherited by a man, a tradition that in many cases allows the vicious cycle of HIV to continue. As part of her advocacy work, Osogo meets with different women’s groups, preaching female independence and how widows can lead constructive lives on their own.
Osogo attends a weekly women's group meeting in the village of Sophia
Her hope for the next 20 years is that women will take the lead in society. Another hope is that Africa will be free from HIV/AIDS and that no child or woman will suffer. But until that happens, her work will continue.
“I am a voice for the voiceless and a voice for the voiceless must be prepared to bring that voice loud and clear for the society to listen, hear it, and take notice of that voice,” she said. “I want to save the world because I want to see our world change.”
Visit aKoma's Vimeo account to see Osogo talk about her children and women's empowerment.