KOLUNGA BEACH, Kenya — Less than 10 years ago, Kolunga Beach was struggling on the verge of non-existence.

The ravages of HIV/AIDS and a lack of educational opportunities had devastated the population of able working adults in Kolunga Beach, located on the shores of Rusinga Island in Lake Victoria, Kenya.

However, residents like Alphonce Okuku, who started small community initiatives after finishing school, are working hard to bring hope back to their struggling communities.

 “I missed several of my friends who had disappeared or died from HIV/ AIDS,” Okuku said.

In 2003, Okuku’s original, disparate initiatives were reorganized into a single multifaceted, holistic approach to helping the community and renamed Kageno, literally meaning “a place of hope” in the local dialect. Since then, there have been many positive changes in the community, including the reduction of the percentage of people with HIV/AIDS from over 42 percent to just 17 percent.

The Plasse Family Health Clinic, which opened in 2004, now provides an array of services to the community: voluntary counseling and testing, treatment of diseases, immunizations of children, family planning services, prenatal and postnatal care, school health programs and mental and physical care for those who are infected with HIV/AIDS.

Joseph Odiri Ogwela, runs the environmental programs at Kageno and recently sold approximately 50,000 seedlings to the to the Kenyan Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, and several other organizations.

Not only has Ogwela’s tree nursery program reintroduced trees to a once barren village, it also employs local women who receive the proceeds of the sales.

“The women that I work with here, they are very old women, and some of them have lost their children and they are left with some young children to take care of,” said Ogwela. “This little bit of money is very important for them.”

Ogwela also manages a dairy goat program, which loans milk-producing goats to local families so that they can get healthy nourishment and sell the excess until they have made enough to purchase the goat. The goats are also bred, and female kids are passed to other families to continue to benefit the community at large.

Despite these many positive developments, though, the upward trend at Kolunga Beach is stalling.

“Some of the services were not being utilized properly,” said Frank Andolino, the executive director and president of the board of Kageno, which now works with two villages in Kenya (including Kolunga Beach) and one in Rwanda.

In response, Okuku and the rest of the community have decided to begin charging for some of the services that were previously provided for free. These would include nominal fees for sanitized water and the nursery school (except for orphans).

Originally, it was thought that the money coming from the sponsorship of about 40 orphans would be enough to maintain and run the school for all 200 children who attend, but due to the global economic downturn, many people have stopped their orphan sponsorships.

In fact, programs such as free lunches for school children, brick-making and even community health outreach have been put on hold due to a lack of funds.

“We used to have a laboratory technician, community health personnel and a peer counselor, but we cannot afford to have this staff now,” said Magdaline Ouma, the community nurse at the health clinic at the Kageno center in Kolunga Beach. “Even me, as a nurse, I’m just voluntarily working this month to help my people.”

Not only is there not enough staff, there are often not even enough drugs to treat the patients.

However, none of these challenges deter Ouma, who herself has several orphaned grandchildren in her care.

“I’ve been a community nurse for more than 20 years, and I come from this community,” she explained. “I would rather work freely to assist my community than stay at home and do nothing. I feel proud if the clinic can still go on.”

Despite the challenges that Okuku, Ogwela and Ouma are now facing, they are looking toward the future, and have bright hopes for their people.

“The macro challenge is moving all the projects that we have to the sustainability level,” Okuku said.  “One of my greatest challenges, and even fears, is how to keep everything here, and running on its own.”

Once Kageno’s programs get a little more capital and labor, Okuku is confident that they will be able to operate independently, and not be dependent on the greater global economy, or the spotty kindness of strangers.

“This place was abandoned, even though there were people,” said Okuku. “It was a neglected place.”

Prior to Kageno, there was no education, no small businesses, no trees and no clean water in Kolunga Beach. Now there is a nursery school with approximately 200 students, and many small businesses, including basket weaving, tourism craft-making and small shops.

“The best way to help Kageno or any other project is to help them start something that is sustainable,” Ouma said.

Additionally, Ouma hopes that Kolunga Beach will become a healthier community, through educational programs and outreach.

“If the people are healthy, they can work,” she said. “They can get something for their children and for themselves. But, if you have a sick community, there will be poverty. A community with no HIV/AIDS — that’s a very big dream we have.”

For example, with some new tools and a specialist’s advice on how to raise fruit trees, Ogwela is confident that the tree nursery will be self-sufficient and able to run on its own.

At the end of these programs I would want to see a very green Rusinga,” Ogwela added. “I would also want to see the lives of those whom I work with, particularly those who work in the tree nursery and the dairy goat program, I would love to see their lives change. If that happens to me, then I would be a very, very happy man.” 

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