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Youth Feature: Meet Agnes Kilemba, community nurse and and education activist from Kenya

A volunteer, mentor, community nurse, peer educator and education ambassador working with communities on Kenya's margins, Agnes' passion is improving understandings of sexual reproductive health and access to health services among Kenya's rural youth.

Through her involvement in different programmes Agnes works to provide accurate health information and clarify misconceptions surrounding sexual health, in spite of challenges such as long distances and difficult working environments.

What is a community nurse, and how did you become one?

"After I finished my undergraduate (Clark International University, Uganda) I came back to Kenya, and following my internship I became licensed as a nurse. I could either practice in a private setting or start working in a community setting, like in public hospitals or in schools. But I'm a licensed, practicing nurse in Kenya.

"How I got started; after completing my internship I realised my passion is not only for offering services in a hospital or in a private setting; I am more liable to offer my services to the community and with a focus on youths."

"That's when I applied for the national volunteering programme, after the internship, and I got in. I got to volunteer with the programme, known as Greatness United. After my 7 months volunteering, in a county far away from where I live, I started engaging with youths in various schools."

At what point in that process did you realise that sexual reproductive health was something you were interested in?

"During my internship I realised that most youths that were coming to access services were either shunned or turned away. Coming from an African background, most people are judged when they are going to hospital to seek services relating to sexual reproductive health. That's when I realised that I need to put my focus on that."

"Youths would come to hospitals and talk to their fellow youths about their sexual reproductive health issues, but not to the personnel who are key there. That's when I said that it's time for me to move out to the schools and engage the students and everyone in the community so that they understand what sexual reproductive health is and what it entails, and in case they need any help they can come and seek those services."

Since the time that you have made this your focus, who have you been working with?

"When I came back to Kenya I first worked with Greatness United. The responsibilities I had was to go into rural schools in Kisumu and give them educational talks about sexual reproductive health. The topics were teenage pregnancies, abortions and sexual relationships. I also spoke about HIV/AIDS, because their is a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Kisumu and that part of the country."

"After that I became a Youth Advocate at the Centre for the Study of Adolescents. We were picked and we went through training on harnessing demographic dividends within the country, and when we came back I was involved in the formation of policies, national health policies, and also adolescent sexual reproductive health policy in 2015 with the county of Mombasa so that it can be passed on to the national government."

"I just completed my volunteering with Safari Doctors in Lamu. I was there since July and I volunteered at the islands of Lamu. The focus was on matters of sexual reproductive health for youths, issues such as sex education and teenage pregnancy. Then I gave educational talks; Safari Doctors had a project where during monthly football games they would promote awareness of condom use. I was there to teach use of the male and female condom. "

"Currently I am also working with the Africa Youth Trust training youths in employability skills."

"All the organisations I work with, Safari Doctors, the Africa Youth Trust, the Centre for the Studies of Adolescents, are all organisations for which I just I applied and was chosen to go work with them. I am not employed anywhere else as a full-time nurse, but I offer my services when I see an opportunity, I apply and just go for it."

What has the response been in the places where you have worked?

"In the schools in Kisumu, since there weren't any sessions in the classes talking about sexual reproductive health issues, the students became more open and willing to discuss any issues they were facing. The teachers became more aware of what was taking place with the students and within the community at large. If it is issues relating to abortions, the students are actually more knowledgeable about what it is where the teachers take them to be naive. At most of the schools students were very responsive and came out in large numbers to talk about their issues. The schools started a club where in sessions after classes teachers continued talking about sexual health issues with the students."

"In Lamu where I just completed volunteering, the communities are very far away and exists on islands. I talked to the community together with the organisation and they were responsive, they were willing to listen to what I was offering and they were taking the message back home."

What challenges did you face there?

"Most of the time you have to be aware of the culture of the people in that community. You can't just barge in and start talking about what you know. You have to first let the people speak to you, about what they know about the issues of sexual reproductive health, and if you are bringing in a topic that is sensitive you have to hear their side first so they open up and take your knowledge."

"The long distances to move from one place to another (was another challenge). In the islands, in Lamu, you have to move from one island to another to go on educating the people."

"There can be backlash from the cultural elders who come to listen to what you have to offer. In Lamu I used to go to the community at large, not just the schools. So when the football matches begin and we started educating the youth about condom use, one of the elders might come to me and say "you are just encouraging our youths to be promiscuous." So now we speak to the elders first and the youths later. At the end they come back to understand the information you are giving, they open up to you and they accept you and the information."

Do you think there are benefits to local solutions like these, organisations that will consider engaging with the community as a whole?

"Yes. I think when you better understand the community they are able to open up to you and let you to give them the knowledge that you have so they can help themselves. Sexual reproductive health issues are not tackled as often in those communities, they don't come forth to speak to the professionals and the health personnel are not near to them. To better understand what they need and the problems they are facing, you need to understand what the culture is about and talk to them to better understand them, so that you open up to them and they also open up to you."

"When they give you feedback, then you can really help the community at large, especially the youth. I think that's the only way they are going to benefit from you; when you better understand them then they are able to accomodate you and they also offer whatever problems they have, and you can solve those issues with them."

You can find out more about Safari Doctors, the Africa Youth Trust, the Centre for the Studies of Adolescents and Greatness United below.

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