For the extraordinary Missionary Month of October 2019, we spoke with Sr Ursula Agge who has been working in Kenyan slums to tackle HIV and gender-based violence.
“Mukuru is one of the biggest slums in Kenya, where hundreds of thousands of people live,” explained Sr Ursula Agge on a recent visit to Ireland. “In the small houses you have five-to-eight people living in a room, bathing, cooking and sleeping. The conditions there are terrible and people are living in abject poverty.”
Sr Ursula Agge of the Medical Missionaries of Mary recently visited the Maynooth offices of Trócaire, the overseas development agency of the Church, to share insights into the work that she and her missionary congregation are involved in. She has expressed her thanks to Trócaire and the Irish public for their continued support.
The Medical Missionaries of Mary – renowned for their efforts in the health sector in many remote areas all over the world – have been working with Trócaire in Mukuru for more than seven years.
Initially focused on HIV treatment, this work is now part of an integrated HIV and Gender Based Violence (GBV) programme as part of Trócaire’s Women’s Empowerment programme.
Sr Agge, who is originally from Nigeria, is the administrator in the Mukuru Health Clinic where she has been leading the programme for seven years.
In response to the dreadful conditions in the slums, the Mukuru Health Clinic was set up in 1995 as a primary health care centre for the community, working with vaccinations and antenatal care.
“We’ve made great strides over the years as we’ve partnered with Trócaire and Misean Cara,” said Sr Agge. “Working with Trócaire, we’ve delved into HIV programmes. We started by interacting with the community and community leaders so we can closely work with them by integrating into the community. This enabled us to go to people’s houses and do door-to-door interaction, testing and screening.”
Such an approach has led to a comprehensive and holistic service, including medical treatment and psychosocial support for trauma as well as development assistance.
“Mukuru has a lot of violence – gender based violence, rape and defilement – and you have children being abused,” said Sr Agge. “Trócaire came with an integrated HIV and GBV programme because if you look at the two issues, they are often intertwined. Many women, and some men, are HIV positive but they have also been violated. We tried to bring both programmes together and this allowed us to reach out to a lot of the community.
“We have a lot of psychosocial support for the HIV and GBV groups and a paediatric support group for the children. These groups help people talk about their problems, their experiences and how they are living. We also have a prevention group for mothers and babies to prevent babies becoming HIV positive.”
Deirdre Campbell, Trócaire’s Gender Based Violence & HIV Advisor, praised the Medical Missionaries of Mary, having travelled to Nairobi last year to view their work.
She said: “Mukuru has some of the highest rates of violence against women and girls in Kenya. The context is extremely challenging – the living conditions in the slum are precarious, people live in densely packed spaces, unemployment is high and the threat of displacement or eviction is constant. Layered on top of this, extreme poverty and gender inequality means that the safety of women and girls is a huge issue.
“Often, in some places, people seeking support can get one of their needs met but they end up bouncing between legal, medical and psychosocial support services and because of that people can be lost and the healing and support doesn’t happen.
“But you only need to be in Mukuru briefly to see the integration of the Medical Missionaries of Mary’s work – when a person is received, every one of their needs is met in one location. That’s amazing because it’s rare to get that.
“The outcomes for people they reach are much greater in terms of their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. That’s something that comes across really strongly.”
Sr Agge explained that collaboration has been key in ensuring a comprehensive service. She said: “We collaborate with the ministry of health and Trócaire’s partners and projects because our focus is on the well-being of young women and girls to empower them to be able to have a say, speak up for themselves and to have an active role and make decisions in their homes and when they go out.”
While much of the work is harrowing, Sr Agge believes they are making a positive impact as significant numbers in the community gradually embrace empowerment for all.
She said: “There are a number of cases that are very sad. In some cases, children have been neglected or abused by a parent. We do basic medical interventions and then we follow up with the police and one recent case it led to a prosecution.
“But I’ve seen a positive change within the last three or four years and that’s because women are able to come forward. You can’t totally change the lifestyle of places, but involving more people and involving both men and women has really helped.”
Sr Agge added: “May I say a big thank to you to Trócaire and your supporters – we cannot do what we do without your support and we really appreciate this warmth and friendship. It means a lot to us.”