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Kenyan family in Spokane Valley involves parish in project

By Virginia De Leon

After witnessing how AIDS ravaged lives of many friends and family in Kenya, the Kigano family decided to start a circle of caring involving their faith community—St. John Vianney Catholic Church in Spokane Valley.

Lucy Kigano, her daughter, Mary Oyugi, of Spokane Valley, Rachel and Chelsea Kigano from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Mary Ann Mwangi from Campbell, Calif., and family from England traveled to their native country last April to bury Lucy’s father, who had died of a stroke at the age of 80.

It was their first visit since they immigrated to the United States a decade ago. During their 10-day stay, they not only grieved the loss of their father and grandfather but also mourned many childhood friends and n

Kigano family
Jane, Alex and Lucy Kigano, Jane's grandson Christian and Lucy's daughter Mary Oyugi.

eighbors who have died from or suffer with AIDS.

The disease has also wreaked havoc on the immune systems of their uncle, a cousin and other relatives—shrinking their once strong bodies into unrecognizable forms of skeleton and skin.

In their hometown, Likii, a community of about 10,000 about 150 miles north of Nairobi, nearly a quarter of the population is infected with HIV.

As the Kiganos watched their mother and grandmother, Rachel Kigano, 76, care for people living with the disease, they decided to start a “circle of caring,” a program to empower those suffering with AIDS by teaching them new skills and providing them a chance to give back to others.

Their plan evolved into Likii Tender Hearts, a nonprofit that teaches people with AIDS and those who have lost a loved one to the disease the arts of dressmaking, knitting and crocheting.

After learning the skills, participants donate their handiwork—clothing, tablecloths and other textiles—to AIDS homes, orphanages and other organizations.

“In return, the trainees acquire a spirit of giving and skills they use to build a new life,” Lucy said. “It’s a way to give back and become self-reliant again.”

The people who are learning to sew and knit have been coming to Rachel’s home for years.

As a respected elder in Likii, Rachel has counseled AIDS patients for three years, said her children in Spokane Valley. 

Recently, Likii’s chief offered her the use of the library in the town’s center to teach classes on AIDS, which has taken more than 25 million lives worldwide since 1981.   Rachel and others use the space to help those suffering with HIV and AIDS through counseling and teaching them how to manage their health.

A Presbyterian, Rachel’s faith has long spurred her to help others, said Jane Kigano, a daughter who also lives in Spokane Valley. 

Even though she was busy with her family, the mother of nine children “never turns people away” when they seek her help or advice, and she usually feeds her visitors, Jane recalled.

Her mother’s kitchen continues to serve steaming pots of mukimo, a combination of mashed peas, corn and potatoes; githeri, a mix of beans and corn, and other traditional Kenyan dishes.

In addition to her volunteer work educating about AIDS, Rachel has made a living as a seamstress for more than 60 years.

To help their mother in her mission with AIDS patients, U.S. members of the Kigano family are raising money by selling banana leaf mosaics.

These are traditional African art with images of elephants, zebras, other animals and tribal people made from dried banana leaves and fibers, and then mounted on black muslin.

The family used their own money to purchase these pieces at the Masaai Market in Nairobi.

Jane and Lucy’s younger brother in Florida, Benson Kigano, organized a silent auction of these mosaics at his church earlier this year and raised more than $1,000. In Kenya, that amount is enough to purchase five rolls of materials and three sewing machines, Lucy said.

Fund-raising efforts are also under way in Spokane, which is home to eight members of the Kigano family: Lucy, Mary and Jane, Jane’s daughter Catherine and five-year-old grandson, Christian; their brother, Alex Kigano; a nephew’s son, eight-year-old Stephen, and their aunt, Violet Kigano.

Lucy and Mary, 18, were the first to move here from California in 2005. They wanted to live somewhere more affordable, said Lucy, who is a planner for a manufacturing company. The Kiganos thought Spokane Valley would be a good place to rear their families, said Jane, who is a nursing assistant.

Jane, Lucy and their families later invited parishioners at St. John Vianney to become involved.    In fact, members of the church were so touched by their efforts to help AIDS patients that the church made Likii Tender Hearts part of its mission this year.

Banana mosaic art
Banana leaf mosaic art

In October, the Kigano family sold banana leaf mosaics at the church’s craft fair.  In December, they hosted a silent auction and Kenyan dinner, raising $2,500.

 “Just as Jesus fed 5,000 people from five loaves and two fish, your purchases, however small, will have impact on a large number of people,” Lucy told members of St. John Vianney during a presentation with Mary, a senior at University High School.

Proceeds from the event will pay for fabric, thread and other materials to make clothing and textiles.  It will also be used to buy and repair sewing machines.

The family hopes to find an artist in Kenya to teach banana-leaf mosaic art to those with AIDS.  Eventually, Likii Tender Hearts will purchase mosaics from those students and sell their original pieces in the United States. 

Despite the prevalence of AIDS and HIV, people with the disease continue to be shunned and suffer discrimination, said Alex, who moved to Spokane Valley from Nairobi last year.  Some remain in denial, not wanting to hear about AIDS, he said.

Although Kenya has experienced a decline in HIV in recent years with increased AIDS education in schools, only those in urban areas hear the message.

People in small, rural communities such as Likii, where many are poor and uneducated, lack those resources, said Jane.

Some don’t realize that practices such as wife inheritance—a custom among several of the more than 40 tribes in Kenya—also contribute to the spread of the disease, Alex said.

Because those afflicted with HIV or AIDS often live in shame and silence, Rachel seeks to give them confidence to speak openly about their experiences.

Jane said that when they “come out of this cocoon,” they spread awareness.

By learning to sew, knit and make clothing for others, people who once lived in loneliness are now part of something bigger than themselves, said Lucy.  Despite their suffering, they realize they have worth and can give to their communities.

By acquiring a spirit of giving, she said, they discover hope.

For information, call 927-5574.

Copyright The Fig Tree ©January 2008