By Cyphrene Wasike
When I first met Emmanuel Okoit, a 50-year-old father of three from Adungosi village of Teso South in Busia County five years ago during a HIV sensitization meeting he admitted to me that he it was the first time he heard of Voluntary Medically Male Circumcision. The sensitization program targeting non circumcising communities aimed at promoting the uptake of Voluntary Medical Male Circumcision programme as part of the comprehensive HIV prevention package was being held at Alupe Centre. In our ten-minute conversation the defiant Emmanuel vowed never to undergo the cut despite the awareness sessions around the topic; ‘Hii maneno mimi siezi fanya’ he said. The Ateso community’s cultural dictates did not allow their men to circumcise and for Emmanuel the advocacy session targeting men like him to undergo the cut was not a welcome gesture at least from a cultural point of view.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Male circumcision significantly reduces the risk of HIV transmission by up to 60% alongside combination prevention strategies. It is against this backdrop that the Voluntary Medical Male Circumcision program was launched targeting non-circumcising communities in a drive to promote the uptake of male circumcision services to complement other available HIV prevention options.
The National Syndemic Diseases Control Council has through its decentralized units been engaging communities in this programme. Busia County is one of the counties where the VMMC program is being implemented. In one of the meetings held in Busia town on scaling up the VMMC programe in the county, I was lucky again to meet Emmanuel Okoit who was also participating. Our second meeting coming after seven years in a similar HIV prevention program was quite interesting. Ordinarily
I was curious to know whether he changed his stand and perception of male circumcision. But even before I engaged him about the matter, he remembered vividly the conversation we had last time and narrated his change of heart about the matter.
‘When I first heard about it together with my village mates, we all cursed it. The message landed on deaf ears because no one would have then dared to undergo a cut whether in a hospital or traditionally. I couldn’t go against my cultural dictates which were jealously guarded by our forefathers. Like many of my village mates, I refused to take part in it. However, this has changed after attending numerous such sessions. ‘Hio kitu nishafanya and I am okay’ Said Okoit.
Participants during VMMC sensitization
To Okoit now in his mid-fifties, the knowledge he has acquired has not only been instrumental in taking appropriate actions against HIV but also as an agent of change in influencing the young and aged in a relatively conservative society to embrace male circumcision. He however acknowledges that it has not been an easy journey. ‘I am now a Voluntary Medical Male Circumcision champion in my area that is why I am here. I have been educating my people on the importance of undergoing the cut which includes HIV prevention by demystifying myths and misconceptions that were misleading. I am happy many people are embracing it in my community, but it has been a tough journey to convince people because changing people’s way of life is not an easy thing at all,’ He added.
Emmanuel’s confession was evident enough that indeed the male circumcision programme has been impactful.
According to the Regional HIV Coordinator Edwin Lwanya, the programme is steadily being embraced by the targeted communities in the county. Lwanya who is leading community engagements notes that correct messaging and community involvement has been the game changer in the uptake of VMMC services. ‘I can attribute the rise in the uptake of male circumcision services to correct and consistent messaging where targeted communities are fully involved in the development, packaging, and dissemination. The program is community driven and we have made it deliberate for trained community champions to be at the center of it in mobilizing and disseminating information. This is why we are witnessing a gradual increase in uptake of the services’, Noted Lwanya.
Together with his other trained Community health volunteers have Okoit in March, they mobilized and referred a total of 33 men who underwent the medical circumcision in Teso South Sub County.