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Joseph Kiranto wears a traditional Maasai clothing from Kenya at a mid-year conference in Calgary for participants in MCC's IVEP program. Debbie Sandland

Joseph Kiranto wears a traditional Maasai clothing from Kenya at a mid-year conference in Calgary for participants in MCC's IVEP program. Debbie Sandland

From Kenya to Calgary: Maasai AIDS educator shares experiences, knowledge

Gladys Terichow
April 3, 2009

CALGARY, Alta. — Joseph Kiranto's backpack is filled with HIV testing kits when he travels by motorcycle or land cruiser to 11 small villages within a few hours driving distance of Najile, Kenya.

Blood tests and counseling are the most effective means to limit the spread of the virus, said Kiranto, a community AIDS educator whose work in the Maasai communities near Najile is supported through Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) Generation at Risk program.

Kiranto, a Maasai, is spending one year in Calgary under MCC's International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP). He is one of 58 young people from 24 countries participating in the one-year program that provides training through volunteer placements in Canada and the United States.

Kiranto arrived in Calgary in August, 2008 and is filling the positions of pastoral assistant at the Foothills Mennonite Church and staff assistant for MCC Alberta's Generation at Risk program. Both placements give him opportunity to speak in churches, schools and fundraising events about the importance of MCC supporting HIV/AIDS projects in Kenya and other countries.

Married people in Maasai villages are most at risk of exposure to HIV, said Kiranto, explaining that gender issues, cultural practices and spiritual beliefs contribute to the spread of the virus in the community.

About 80 per cent of men in Maasai villages have more than one wife. Girls generally get married between the ages of nine to 13 through marriages arranged by their parents.

Kiranto said his frank discussion about the spread of the virus includes the message that "AIDS is not witchcraft, it is not a curse from God—AIDS is a disease that can be prevented."

During his stay in Canada, Kiranto has met only a few people living with HIV or having an AIDS diagnosis. But he said he has seen the statistics and realizes many people live with the virus in Alberta and other Canadian provinces.

"My first impression was that AIDS is not prevalent here but I'm beginning to see how access to clean water, nutritious food and medical treatment make it possible for people living with HIV to be part of the community," he said.

One of the highlights of his placements in Calgary is participating as the guest speaker in a series of concerts taking place in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The concert, Help Make Hope Happen, features Calgary vocalist Kim Thiessen accompanied by Winnipeg musician Darryl Neustaedter Barg.

All proceeds from the concerts support MCC's Generation at Risk program – a program that provides direct support to people living with HIV and addresses issues that perpetuate the spread of the disease.

Kiranto said he will return to his work in Kenya with a greater understanding of how MCC uses the reports he writes for the Generations at Risk program and with new skills to write these reports. These skills include improved English language skills, computer skills and time-management skills.

He also treasures the memories of meeting so many other IVEP participants at a mid-year conference held in Calgary in February.

"All of us are working for a better world," he said. "If each one of us is empowered like I have been empowered, then we can change the world."

To host an IVEP participant or provide a job placement, contact your nearest MCC office. In Canada, call (888) 622-6337. In the U.S., call (888) 563-4676.