Although the HIV/Aids epidemic is a national problem in Rwanda, the level of knowledge about the transmission and the impact of this disease is still insufficient. This has led to stigma and discrimination towards people living with HIV/Aids.
Joseph Oindo met with Judith Kaine, the founder and coordinator of Kurema, Kureba, Kwiga, (translated: To Create, To See, To Learn), a public arts project that uses visual and street arts to address stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV/Aids in Rwanda. Excerpts …
What drove you to start Kurema?
After meeting the group of artists in residence at Ivuka Arts Kigali (Rwanda’s first community-arts center) in August 2013, I started realising the limited presence of public art in Rwanda.
As a public health professional, I have been very interested in Rwanda’s successes in fighting the HIV/Aids epidemic. But around the time of meeting Ivuka artists, I also started realising that despite the many clinical (medical and policy) successes Rwanda has registered in the fight against HIV, there is still a distinct lack of public dialogue about the experience of having HIV or for people living with HIV to make their own voices heard.
There is also a lot of misinformation and ignorance about Aids and the virus that causes it. The limited public discourse on the matter, and lack of platform for people to communicate on the topic, ultimately casts a shadow behind the successes Rwanda has seen, and in that shadow stigma and discrimination can grow
As such, I wanted to work with creative and enthusiastic Rwandans to try and do something different that would put more colour into people’s lives, get them talking, and promote creative thinking and dialogue, while addressing a critical gap in the HIV/Aids fight. Since beginning Kurema activities in September 2013, I think we are succeeding with these goals.
Has involving local visual artists been successful in spreading message against HIV/Aids stigmatisation?
Involving local artists has been essential to our successes. Together we have not only spread health-promoting and positive-living messages through artwork (like in our mural projects), but we are also focused on creating new artists - we are using art to teach young people that they can use ways (other than spoken dialogue) to express themselves and to think about their lives and experiences.
Activities involved in creating new artists have focused on addressing aspects of self-stigma, whereas the arts created by local visual artists (from Ivuka) have targeted broader, social stigma about HIV.
All our projects have been based on public art concepts, and street art styles and methods. We are specifically focused on street art because it is purposed to challenge conventions, raise awareness and questions, and is for every-day people to see and consume.
Have people been positively responding to the message you are putting across?
So far yes, we have only had positive feedback - both directly from participants (artists and young people affected by HIV) as well as from the community, from donors, and from governmental partners.
Are there other organisations helping you in Kurema projects?
All of our work has been created through partnerships with other organisations, groups, and partners, as well as with the support of different donors.
Some key stakeholders include: Ivuka Arts Kigali, Rwanda Biomedical Center, HIV Division, Kigali Hope Association, UNAIDS, UNDP, UNFPA, Aids Healthcare Foundation (AHF), The Embassy of the Royal Kingdom of the Netherlands, The Embassy of the United States of America and The Peace Corps, among others.
How do you intend to spread your message to Rwanda rural community?
Two of our projects really prioritise taking activities and spreading messages outside of the capital city. We have now created large scale mural paintings in every province, using simple and bold messages (in Kinyarwanda) that can be easily seen and interpreted by Rwandans across the country.
Our new Awareness-Poster project will involve working with community-based groups in every district to build new partnerships and conduct art and health education workshops with community members, which will lead to art exhibitions to be held in all 30 districts.
Do you think Rwanda is winning the war against HIV?
There is not a simple answer to this question as it is not a black and white, 2-sided war that can be won or lost; Rwanda is making incredible strides in fighting HIV. But there is still a long journey ahead that must involve improvements to education, health systems, economic opportunities and developments, and the protection of human rights, before we can truly achieve zero new infections, zero HIV related stigma and discrimination, and zero HIV-related deaths.
What message would you like to send to those infected and affected with HIV, and those not?
I don’t have one message for people living with HIV and those living without - the bottom line is that people are people and we are all equally responsible for treating each other with respect and dignity. That includes being responsible for yourself (i.e. knowing your status, practicing safer sex, taking medications to stay healthy as necessary, etc).
And for others (i.e. recognising that you can’t know a person’s status from looks alone, educating yourself and your family about risks and how to avoid them, disclosing your status as necessary, sharing love and compassion for people facing the burden of illness).
While there are unique challenges facing people living with and affected by HIV/Aids, it is my hope that one day we will all look beyond those challenges, recognising that people living with HIV are just like everyone else, and that HIV is becoming a manageable disease much like diabetes and other illnesses that can be controlled with proper care and support.
It is up to the generation of today to fight against stigma so that people living with the disease can receive the best care possible, which will help stop the spread of new infections, and ultimately bring an end to the fight against HIV.
Tell us about yourself, and why you came to Rwanda?
I grew up in Sarasota, Florida (USA), and studied anthropology and visual arts for my undergraduate degree at Emory University. I later pursued both a Master in International Affairs and a Master in Public Health at Columbia University in New York City.
I came to Rwanda for the first time as a tourist in 2007. After some years working for both non-profit organizations and in the private sector in different parts of Africa and Latin America, I came back to Rwanda in 2013.