International Women’s Day Event to Celebrate Ugandan Hero

Agnes Nyamayarwo and Bono address an audience about HIV/AIDS prevention. Photo: Courtesy Debbie Kreuser

In an early celebration of International Women’s Day, Blue Planet Green Living is partnering with A GEM of An Idea to host a live and interactive, online forum featuring the subject of this post, Agnes Nyamayarwo, founder of Mulago Positive Women’s Network.

We’re focusing on Agnes — both here and in the online forum — to celebrate her singular accomplishments as a woman of initiative, courage, and strength.

We invite you to join us February 26, 2011 from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. EST (PLEASE NOTE THE CORRECTED TIME: 9:00 a.m. EST) to speak with Agnes Nyamayarwo live from Uganda via the Internet. More information follows at the end of the post. — Julia Wasson, Publisher

Agnes Nyamayarwo, founder of the Mulago Positive Women’s Network (MPWN), empowers Ugandan women inflicted with HIV/AIDS to create better lives for themselves and their families. Her efforts benefit approximately 70 women, ranging in age from 16 to 50. All of the women have tested positive for the virus. They meet weekly and take care of each other when they fall ill.

An AIDS widow herself, Agnes also lives with the virus. She is a nurse, activist, and counselor with The AIDS Support Organization (TASO) Uganda, one of the first African AIDS organizations. Agnes founded the MPWN in 2004 as a subset of TASO, and the members of MPWN receive their anti-retroviral drugs from TASO today.

Because of Agnes’s groundbreaking work, Bono, philanthropist and lead singer from the band U2, chose her as the first African spokesperson for DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa) in 2002. DATA became known as the ONE campaign in 2004.

Support and Empowerment for Women

Harriet, a member of MPWN, demonstrates how she makes a basket. Photo: Courtesy Debbie Kreuser

“MPWN functions as a support network, first and foremost,” says Debbie Kreuser, an African activist and close friend of Agnes Nyamayarwo. Debbie volunteers for MPWN from her home in Austin, Texas, selling goods made by the women and raising awareness for the program. She is the U.S. spokesperson for Agnes and the MPWN due to the unreliability of communication between the two countries.

The MPWN program is unique, Debbie explains, because it does more than provide the women with medication. MPWN members receive both the drugs necessary for their survival and a means by which to earn money. They use much of their income to protect against other life-threatening issues such as hunger.

“These are women who are living on the edge,” says Debbie. “They would have fallen off the cliff economically without the MPWN.”

The women are trained in a craft and use their skills  to earn an income for themselves and their families. Some of the handmade items they sell include paper-bead jewelry, baskets, dolls, jewelry boxes, and sun hats. MPWN members’ crafts are available for purchase online at

Shoppers check out the merchandies at the MPWN store in Uganda. Photo: Courtesy Debbie Kreuser

“Another important aspect of the group is economic empowerment,” Debbie adds. “The members of MPWN are trained to be small businesswomen. Some of them also raise a few pigs or chickens,” says Debbie. “It won’t make them rich, but it gives them something to live on.”

Today, a majority of the women in Mulago Positive Women’s Network are doing quite well because they have marketable skills, Debbie explains. Some of the younger girls have even finished high school, which is a difficult task for most Ugandan women.

Many women in the MPWN are the sole providers for themselves and their children, making their marketable skills as critical as life and death for those they support financially. Most members are single women, or women whose husbands or boyfriends have passed away, often from HIV/AIDS.

Debbie explains that a majority of Ugandan women who are infected with HIV/AIDS catch it through heterosexual sex. There is a stigma in Uganda against men getting tested for the virus, exacerbating the problem by preventing a woman from knowing if her partner is infected. Currently, 10 to 15 percent of the country’s population is afflicted with HIV/AIDS.

“The MPWN gives infected women a support network. It gives them a choice of what kinds of relationships they want to be in,” Debbie says.

As Close as Sisters

Agnes and Debbie have become close friends through their work with MPWN. Photo: Courtesy Debbie Kreuser

Asked about her own involvement in MPWN, Debbie explains that her interest in Africa began when she was a teenager; now she’s 51.

When Debbie saw that Bono was serious about his efforts on behalf of Africa a decade ago, she decided to join up with DATA. That’s where she first met Agnes, on “The Heart of America” speaking tour with Bono in December 2002.

“I met Agnes on her first day in the United States, in Lincoln, Nebraska,” Debbie remembers. They met again in March 2007 at a ONE regional training seminar in Houston, Texas, and have “been like sisters ever since.”

Agnes asked Debbie to help with the website for the MPWN, which she does as a volunteer. All profits from items sold on the website are returned to the women who made them.

Join the Conversation February 26

In honor of silent women heroes such as Agnes and Debbie, Blue Planet Green Living invites our readers to join the GEM-MPWN online forum and conversation: Saturday, February 26, 2011 from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. EST. (An interview with youth leaders around the world will follow from 10:00 to 11:00 a.m. EST.)

These are some of the dolls made by the women of MPWN. Photo: Courtesy Debbie Kreuser

MPWN supporters around the world will have the opportunity to interact with Agnes and her fellow MPWN members through a secure multimedia platform hosted by Heart in Action Enterprises. The interactive session will provide a rare look at how Agnes and other African women with HIV/AIDS are empowering themselves for the future.

Agnes and her friends will also demonstrate how they make some of their highly acclaimed African craft items, including their paper-bead jewelry. They will also answer questions regarding their daily lives in Uganda.

Click here to join the International Women’s Day celebration of “The Power of Women” and speak with Agnes Nyamayarwo live from Uganda. [Important note: Once you get to A Gem of an Idea, click on “Enter Multicast” at the top of the page.] Although anyone may view the broadcast and participate in the chat via the Internet, you’ll need a headset to ask questions aloud and a web camera if you’d like Agnes and her friends to see you. If you decide to participate by video and/or voice, please log in a few minutes before the event starts to receive instructions.

For More Information

Heart in Action Enterprises and several global partners are addressing the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and Information and Communications Technology (ICT) security innovation for the digital divide. For more information about A GEM of an Idea or Heart in Action, please contact Ashie Hirji. To find out more about the MPWN, contact Debbie Kreuser.

Brigette Fanning

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Seeking Sustainability in a Harsh and Beautiful Land

Namib Dunes in Namibia. Photo: Miriam Kashia

Namib Dunes in Namibia. Photo: Miriam Kashia

Miriam Kashia, a Peace Corps volunteer who returned from Namibia one year ago, recently spoke with Blue Planet Green Living about her experience. What follows is Part 2 of a two-part interview. — Julia Wasson, Publisher

BPGL: I’ve heard, over the years, about problems with poaching of African game. Is that an issue in Namibia?

KASHIA: In almost all African countries, there’s been a lot of poaching of the wildlife. And most animals now only live in the game parks. There are very few left just roaming wild. There are still many varieties of antelope and, depending on where you are, a few others. But most of the more exotic animals now live in game parks or on game farms, actually. When I say farm, I’m talking about what we would call a ranch. Because it’s a desert, it takes thousands of hectares to support their livestock of goats, sheep, cattle, and wild animals.

BPGL: When you talk about the game farms, or ranches, are these private properties?

KASHIA: Yes. And there are many of them. They raise livestock for market and wild game to promote tourism. This has to do with Namibia’s government and what they’re trying to do, which is to promote economic development, as well as preserve the natural resources. Some of the ranches — in fact, a lot of them — bring in tourists from Europe or the United States, who then hunt on these farms. It’s in their interest to keep the wildlife balance healthy. Some of them are lodges that have wildlife areas for people to visit, like on a mini-safari. Some of these farms have grown into projects to help save rare animals from extinction. The cheetah is an example of that.

There are also a few large national game parks. Etosha National Park in northern Namibia is one of southern Africa’s premiere parks.

The government has also supported the development of constituencies, as they’re called, which are run by local settlements of tribal people in various parts of the country. They set up campsites or other points of interest and preserve them to attract tourists and share their cultural traditions. I stayed at one of those a couple of times, when I was on holiday, traveling. It was far more interesting than staying in a very Western-looking tourist lodge.

Endangered desert tortoise. Photo: Miriam Kashia

Endangered desert tortoise. Photo: Miriam Kashia

These constituencies are a very positive project funded by the Namibian government — probably underscored by our government as well — to bring financial resources into these communities. Making a living in a poor, developing country in the middle of the desert is not an easy thing to do. And at the same time, they then realize that conserving the beauty, the wildlife, and their cultural practices is to their advantage.

BPGL: Is saving the environment and culture a recent effort in Namibia?

KASHIA: I think that, probably, some people have recognized the importance of conserving wildlife for a long time, but it’s hard, very hard, in a country where people don’t have enough to eat sometimes, to tell them not to hunt. I don’t think there are too many problems left in Namibia with poaching and killing endangered wildlife. Ostriches, for example, are protected. There are eight species of desert tortoise that are all endangered and protected, as well as wild dogs and the rare desert elephants.

Rare desert elephants in Namibia. Photo: Miriam Kashia

Rare desert elephants in Namibia. Photo: Miriam Kashia

BPGL: Tell me about your HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention work.

KASHIA: It’s a male-dominated society. Unfortunately, the gender inequality issue is one of the factors that drives the HIV rate. There are very, very, very many female-headed households, at least where I lived, though I think that’s true in general. Historically, under colonialism, in order to get jobs, men had to go work in mines or along the farms near the rivers on the north or south borders, and they had to leave their families behind. This undermined the family system and helped to spread the AIDS virus.

There’s a long list of reasons for the spread of HIV in Africa. There are probably 20 factors that I felt contributed to the HIV infection rate. Although, thanks to the United Nations, the USAID, and the Peace Corps, it isn’t because of ignorance anymore. Research shows that 95 percent of the people in Namibia do know what causes HIV and how to prevent it. So, the information is out there. But getting them to change their behavior is a whole other issue.

A female-headed Nama family. Photo: Miriam Kashia

A female-headed Nama family. Photo: Miriam Kashia

There are also a lot of myths and stories that undermine the information about HIV/AIDS. One is that condoms cause AIDS. Another is that AIDS doesn’t exist. And another is that sex with a virgin will cure a person of AIDS. A lot of the AIDS prevention work that I did was giving accurate information to young people and talking to them about behavior change.

BPGL: Did they believe you?

KASHIA: I think so. These were high school kids who knew us and came to our workshops. It was virtually impossible to get older adults to come. Not talking about sex is a cultural norm. So, when we talked openly and honestly to young people about their bodies, about sex, about HIV, it was the first time anybody ever had. In school, they got the bare essentials. The parents don’t talk to the kids about sex. It’s embarrassing for them. It’s like this country 100 years ago.

BPGL: Did the kids tell their parents what they learned?

KASHIA: The ones who really felt like they couldn’t talk with their parents about it probably didn’t tell. More importantly, though, I think it opened the door for young people to talk with one another about sex and about using condoms.

Southern Girls' Conference attendees. Photo: Miriam Kashia

Southern Girls Conference attendees. Photo: Miriam Kashia

One of the things I participated in was a workshop for high school young women, called the Southern Girls Conference, which the Peace Corps started several years ago. About 60 young women — mostly 10th and 11th graders — from the two regions in the southern part of Namibia (a region is like state) attended a three-day conference to empower young women.

I taught a course on reproductive health, which was a smashing hit, because I wasn’t afraid to talk to these young women in very frank, honest terms about their bodies and men’s bodies, pregnancy, preventing pregnancy, and preventing disease. They were just spellbound. It was quite thrilling for me.

BPGL: What was your primary focus as a Peace Corps volunteer?

KASHIA: My focus was working with orphans and vulnerable children. My job — what I thought my job was when I got there, was to support an organization that was helping the children. When I arrived, there really wasn’t an organization, which isn’t all that uncommon with the Peace Corps. So I spent the first eight months trying to figure out what I was doing and which people I needed to work with, and going through quite a bit of difficulty with that.

I wrote grant proposals and got money from CAFO to support educational efforts for the kids. When I say, “the kids,” I’m talking about orphans and vulnerable children (OVC). In Namibia, OVC is a technical term. OVC are eligible for government grant money, which is like welfare support for these kids. It’s the equivalent of $30 US a month per kid. That doesn’t go very far.

Nama children with new sweaters from CAFO. Photo: Miriam Kashia

Nama children with new sweaters from CAFO. Photo: Miriam Kashia

Education isn’t free there. You have to pay for it, you have to have a school uniform, and you have to buy your own supplies. There’s usually one book for 5 kids, and there may be 50 kids to a classroom. In addition, we provided blankets, shoes, winter coats, toiletries, an after-school program, and food programs.

The committee that I helped to create was a group of Afrikaner people, who are the white people, working with the Nama people, who are the very poor, local tribal group. I got them sitting in the same room, working together, talking about how they can help the kids. It was very gratifying. I served as a kind of a bridge.

There are 13 cultural, ethnic, tribal groups in Namibia and 28 different dialects. English is the official language. It was adopted in 1990 at independence. The little kids and old people don’t speak it. They speak “Namlish,” a combination of Namibian and English. It took me a year to be able to understand that, much less Afrikaans.

BPGL: How do the Nama people make a living?

Kashia with a 92-year-old ouma and the grandchildren she is raising.

Kashia with a 92-year-old ouma and the children she is raising.

KASHIA: I tried for two years to figure that out. The cultural expectation is that people help each other. I knew many women without jobs who were trying to raise their own children plus the orphans of deceased relatives. Very basic needs, food, and clothing are a big problem.

When you turn 60 in Namibia, you automatically get a pension, the equivalent of $85 US. The old people, whether they’ve ever worked or not, automatically get this pension. A lot of the oumas, the grandmothers, are trying to raise their grandkids, whose parents have died or are missing, to support themselves, and to send the kids to school — all on this money. Many of the costs there are as much as here in the U.S. They can’t raise crops in the desert. They can’t support themselves. It’s really very difficult. A few can get some domestic work or jobs clerking in shops, but that’s pretty much it.

Nama women perform a traditional dance. Photo: Miriam Kashia

Tswana women perform a traditional dance. Photo: Miriam Kashia

BPGL: What hope is there for their economic future?

The Nama culture is disappearing. Photo: Miriam Kashia

The Himba culture is disappearing. Photo: Miriam Kashia

KASHIA: Namibia is a land of stark contrasts, beauty, and diversity. Fortunately for Namibia, because of that, it is attracting a fair number of tourists now. The cultural and natural and geological diversity are a plus for Namibia. But a lot of the tribal groups are rapidly losing their cultures. Their languages are disappearing, and their tribal customs and traditions are, too, because of Western influence.

BPGL: What are the goals of the Peace Corps program?

KASHIA: The Peace Corps has three goals:

  1. To accept an invitation to help a developing country. We only go where we’re invited and where it’s stable and politically safe to go.
  2. To teach people in our host country about the U.S.
  3. To teach people in the U.S. about our host country.

BPGL: Is the work you started in Karasburg continuing?

KASHIA: I’ve been getting emails from my Afrikaner friends, who say it’s been very hard for the Nama people, but they’re carrying on, and they’ve still got projects going. I’m very glad, because I didn’t know if it was going to be sustainable.

Kashia wrote a grant to buy this herd of goats. Photo: Miriam Kashia

Kashia wrote a grant to buy this herd of goats. Photo: Miriam Kashia

The last grant I wrote was to buy goats so that there would be some sustainable income for continuing to help the children when the grants dry up. Most of the current grant money comes from the U.S., through USAID. Somewhere in Namibia, there is a herd of goats that is busy making more goats to help provide for the needs of these kids. We had about 300 children on our roster, but there were many others. They weren’t all orphans, but they were all vulnerable children.

USAID provides funds to CAFO, which are then distributed through grants to local projects for helping children. You have to meet strict requirements to get the money. They have to approve your projects, and you have to send in monthly reports. I spent a lot of time writing reports. And I had to train my replacements (volunteers) to do that, to write grant proposals and fill out the monthly reports, including receipts. It’s just like running a business. It was very well monitored. That’s called capacity building. The Peace Corps is huge on sustainability, and it’s really, really hard to do that. Where I lived, agriculture wasn’t a viable option. There were no raw materials to produce products to sell. And there were no local markets because of the poverty.

So goats were about the best option. We bought a herd of goats for meat. The goats pretty much raise themselves. They can survive in the scrub better than cattle. When the goats are mature, the people sell them. And the goats keep making more goats, so you can sell them too, and have money to help the children. They’re the wrong kind of goats for milk and cheese. And there’s not enough water; if you’re going to produce milk from goats, there has to be enough water. There’s enough water, generally, for them to survive, to give milk for their babies, but not enough to make cheese. And maybe it’s a cultural thing [to not eat milk or cheese].

BPGL: What do you see as your biggest accomplishment during your time in Namibia?

Children with their new blankets from CAFO. Photo: Miriam Kashia

Children with their new blankets from CAFO. Photo: Miriam Kashia

KASHIA: One of the things that I’m most proud of and that I think was probably the biggest contribution that I made in terms of its overall impact, was that I co-created, with another Peace Corps volunteer who was an IT specialist, a database which is now being used throughout the country to track the OVC (orphans and vulnerable children). It also tracks their caregivers, and information about children, their needs, and how their needs are being met. We’re helping to gather better data about how many of these kids there are, who’s taking care of them, and what their caregivers’ resources are.

We implemented the database just before I left Namibia. UNICEF provides computers for CAFO groups that are running programs for OVC. We set up a training program for gathering data and using the database. And now they’re doing it on their own. So they have better reporting and better tracking of the children, and it’s just more efficient for everybody.

The Namibian government spent a lot of money for five or six years trying to create a database, and it never happened. We gave them this one for free. So that’s something very sustainable that I feel very good about. It’s going to have a large impact and help a lot of kids.

Part 1: Peace Corps Volunteer Teaches Green Living in Namibia

Part 2: Seeking Sustainability in a Harsh and Beautiful Land (Top of Page)

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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My 5: Miriam Kashia, Peace Corps Volunteer

Children Raising Children: Documenting Africa’s AIDS Crisis