Some time ago, I had a very blessed opportunity to create imagery for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF). Allow me to digress here a little because I just want to say how much I LOVE my job as a Documentary and Conservation photographer. I got into documentary work and not photojournalism because I wanted to be more involved with my subject’s and steep my life in theirs. In this way, I could somehow change on a personal level and also leave a part of myself having changed them. Sergeant Ali Amri Mlalanaro who is featured on this blog today changed far more in me than I could ever change in him.
Kenya’s Armed Forces are a very close-knit and secretive group and sadly this has proved detrimental in the fight against HIV/AIDS. In the past, the virus ran rampant through all the ranks in the forces because of this. People who happened to get HIV, were (and sometimes, still are) afraid to come out and let their status be know due to stigmatisation. As a result, many soldiers have not sought treatment leaving their ailing bodies to waste away. This has caused much pain to numerous families as well as weakened our nation’s defence by the reduced number of able bodied individuals.
In an effort to change this, EGPAF undertook the AIDS Response in Forces in Uniform (ARIFU) program to improve HIV care and treatment services among personnel of some of Kenya’s disciplined forces, their families and surrounding communities.
Ali Amri Mlalanaro suspected he was HIV+ in 1994 but confirmed it in 1998. This was a year before HIV/ AIDS was declared a national disaster by the then president and anti-retrovirals (ARV’s) or any kind of assistance was made readily available.
“Before I even suspected I was HIV positive, I had been infected for about four years. My second wife, who died of HIV, had lived for many years without knowing her status. My current wife was also unknowingly living with HIV.”
Ali and his wife were inspired to encourage people to go for testing in order to live positively. Without any training whatsoever, they would go out to friends, neighbours and workmates and preach a gospel that they lived out.
“People wouldn’t believe me when I told them I was HIV+ but when I would describe to them the importance of early testing and how it helps you make choices that prolong your life, like I have, they begun to slowly listen to me.
In 2010 he got an invitation to attend a training workshop on HIV/AIDS and there he met with EGPAF and the ARIFU program.
Inspector Ali uses every opportunity he has to talk to his fellow soldiers about being safe and early testing.
“HIV is not just an affliction of the body, but of the mind, too.”
Aside from with the Administration Police, Ali is also involved in peer-to-peer group sessions in his community of Mtongwe, Mombasa. He assists a local NGO in showing people living with HIV/AIDS how to live with their positive status.
“Through positive living, I was able to live without ARV’s for over TEN YEARS! I only begun taking ARV’s in 2010 when my CD4 count fell due to sickness”
“I need them to understand that they cant mess around anymore. If they take charge over their diet, if they exercise and if they do not miss a dose of their ARV’s then they can live long productive lives”
“I love working with the community because here I am not ‘Inspector’, I am just Ali.”
“We do this to leave a legacy. I shall not be known as ‘Ali-who-contracted-HIV’. Rather, we want our grandchildren to be proud of their grandparents who helped their community.”