Leah Okeyo is a community activist, blogger, author, and World Pulse correspondent. She is co-founder of two women's organizations–Jacolo Rural Women Response to HIV/AIDS, and Positive Action for Change (PACHO)–and is a participant in RV's “Blogging Positively” project. She is a Kenyan citizen and mother of six, who dreams of bringing computer technology and Internet access to her community, and who blogs regularly for a global audience. “Giving voice to the voiceless” is one of her primary goals, and this includes not only women and people living in rural areas, but people like herself who are living with HIV/AIDS.
The following is an interview conducted recently by Blogging Positively members Janet Feldman and Serina Kalande with this dynamic advocate for citizen journalism, who passionately believes in the power of communication to change lives and forge lasting bonds of support and caring across cultures. The interview was conducted in person in Nairobi and over email.
Rising Voices: Please tell us about Jacolo Rural Women Response to HIV/AIDS, and your involvement in it:
Leah Okeyo: Myself and a group of HIV-positive women founded Jacolo Rural Women's Response to HIV/AIDS 5 years ago. The founders’ major work then was to improve the living standards of HIV-positive women, who had no income and could not put food on their tables. Today, Jacolo runs many different programmes in support of the rights of women with HIV.
I recently founded a new organization, called PACHO. My dreams have shifted. Much as I support all the projects in Jacolo, I now concentrate more on the power of voice. Of sharing stories and solutions. This is going to be the basic approach that will eventually lead me towards my intended goals.
RV: What does PACHO stand for, and what are your plans for the organization?
LO: PACHO in the local language means “home”. This is a place that is intended to be a safe space. It is also the acronym for “Positive Action For Change Organization.” We need a change. The action must be positive in order to attain it. The organization should be able to address issues affecting women at the grassroots level, and participate actively in issues that ensure change locally and internationally. Once the women are empowered, communities and the world will be empowered. My work will then have a stronger impact. This is my dream and my passion.
RV: What is your connection to World Pulse, and what do you do there?
LO: World Pulse is the site that changed my life. That is where I found the power of voice. That is where I learned to blog. I do outreach for World Pulse in Africa. I encourage men and women to share voices. This has worked well to a great extent. Today, we had a meeting with World Pulse members in Nairobi. Everybody agrees that there is a need for such forums, where we can have on-going discussions that are solution-oriented.
RV: World Pulse has trainings on citizen journalism: have you done any?
LO: I learned all about Web 2.0 through these trainings. I learned to use this as a tool for my activism and advocacy. World Pulse, and citizen journalism in general, gives me the space and ability to air my feelings and views without limits, as well as learn more about and share with or for others, especially those who are less privileged to do so. Sometimes our representatives (governments and policymakers) pretend to know our problems, but in the real sense they do not, or are passive about them. The opportunity to say it all loud and clear is here.
These platforms also give others the opportunity to share their voices with me, the community, and the world. When it is in a solution-oriented manner, then more benefits are gotten from it. It does not matter any more if you are from the grassroots or at the top, the opportunities to hear and be heard are available.
RV: How did you get involved in the use of citizen media, and what forms are you using?
LO: Prior to World Pulse, I had a passion for writing. I would express all my feelings through writing, and sometimes through poetry. I found it important to talk about issues that my local dailies would never have published. This, therefore, became my biggest motivation. Now I represent voices at the grassroots. Those voices that would otherwise never be heard. I especially work on HIV/AIDS and other issues affecting women and young people.
RV: Is any of your writing and poetry published?
LO: I express myself through poetry. It not only sends messages, but it is entertaining, too. Many people find it easier to read poetry than plain verse. I use this opportunity to “preach my gospel”! Through my writing, I always see myself as a representative of a larger group. As an activist, sometimes I am on the offensive or defensive. Sometimes I am an ambassador, or just a speaker. Sometimes I am a messenger. Many times, I am an informer, getting information to larger groups and vast communities. My poetry has never been published, but that is the goal right now.
RV: Bringing computer access and technology to your community is important to you: how are you addressing that?
LO: That is my greatest dream! I will do it! Right now many members of my community share my personal computer to do their work. I let them. I know how it would have felt if I was in their shoes! I know how grateful they are when they are done.
RV: Do you blog about HIV/AIDS-related topics? If so, what issues or subjects are of special interest?
LO: That is where my heart (and mouth) is! My special interests are on advocacy and treatment. I share all information that I get from forums and conferences through blogging and chatting. I look forward to a time when researchers will come up with the next development that will have a positive impact on us.
RV: Has your experience with blogging helped to advance the conversation (awareness and action) about HIV/AIDS?
LO: When it does not help me get information, it helps me spread the word. I remember a few months ago when there was a shortage of condoms in Kenya, I blogged about that, and surprisingly, the response was quick and more than I expected! I thought it would come from Kenya, but it came instead from Portland State University students. They sent a box of more than 1000! This was collective responsibility in action, and the result was immediate.
Many times, I have read from other blogs about opportunities in the field of HIV/AIDS that are available. I have gotten scholarships and opportunities to speak and share regarding HIV/AIDS, and also to hear from people across borders. The benefits are numerous.
RV: What is your connection to the Blogging Positively project now, and what do you envision for the future?
LO: The December (World AIDS Day 2010) chat was great! I have never directly “blogged positively” by chatting with more than one person. I envision a community that will work together for the sake of others, and themselves. I have a copy of the “Blogging Positively” e-guide and hope to use it in future!
RV: Do you have suggestions for making the project as useful as possible?
LO: This project will be quite useful. For me “blogging positively” (the activity) is a teacher, for it gives me the opportunity to get information from around the world that I would not have otherwise. Information is useful when shared. I feel the success of this project will depend on the people reached beyond the immediate group, and the ability to have action plans and follow-ups. Without this, we will not have the capacity to measure our success.
RV: Do you see collaborative possibilities between the Blogging Positively project, World Pulse, and your own endeavors?
LO: I would love a collaboration, because we would aim towards the same goals. I am in personal communication with many people who are HIV-positive, and also advocates at World Pulse. World Pulse is the ground that has many voices of people living with HIV. I have connections the world over with the same. We would bring these groups together towards being a common voice, and a voice for the voiceless.
PACHO, as an organization, would draw up a plan in conjunction with the Blogging Positively project, to encourage blogging as a major means and tool to address issues surrounding HIV/AIDS. Personally, I am trained in HIV Counseling and Testing. I have been a motivation to many of my peers. It makes me reach and be reached out to by many! I would therefore reach out in other parallel programmes with an impact!
RV: Do you have an interest in research, in addition to treatment and advocacy?
LO: I know where the shoe pinches most. Right from pre-test, then post-test, medication, care…you name it! I will advocate for better treatment and policies. I will advocate for rights. I will advocate on behalf of all whose voices that have been drowned out or silenced, for various reasons!
On issues of research, I am sure there is a great linkage between medication and a negative HIV status. I am looking at a world where all forms of treatment will produce some positive (beneficial) results. I want to be an object for positive research, as a person and with my community, for the sake of my people, regardless of the generation.
RV: Anything else to add?
LO: I did not talk about the coerced family planning and sterilization that is going on in Nairobi now, on HIV-positive women. This issue needs urgent attention. The medical personnel in a majority of the centres where we go for treatment are bossy and authoritative. It is therefore very hard to cope. I would love to know from others the cost of ARV treatment and women's experiences in a good facility, for example, so I could share that with others.
Leah was also interviewed by Wanyama wa Chebusiri as part of the BBC's Superpower in Africa series. You can listen to the podcast here.