We are continuing to celebrate our 20th anniversary as TICAH! This month, we sat down with one of our longest standing team members, Mary Elias.
If you’ve been to one of our activities, chances are high you got to experience Mary’s engaging facilitation style and her big smile. Our Program Manager at the Healthy Households program, Mary, has been part of TICAH for over 15 years!
1) Who are you?
I’m Mary Akoth Elias, Program Manager for Healthy Households.
2) What do you do at TICAH?
I manage the Miale work under the Healthy Households Program, which is Community Outreach work. Basically, working with people living with HIV/AIDS and other vulnerable community members.
The Healthy Household program was actually designed by our communities to address their health needs, particularly those living with HIV. It embodies practical solutions that speak to the realities of their context and their everyday life. Miales (“Sparks”) are champions we equip with knowledge and tools to train their communities on how to utilize food and herbs to manage their health.
3) When did you join TICAH?
I joined TICAH in December 2008.
4) Do you remember what your first day was like?
Yes! My first day at TICAH was really fun. I was so excited to join TICAH, I had been working with them as a consultant before. I felt like the environment was very welcoming. I joined to do what I like most.
Those days, HIV was a big issue and I really wanted to work with people living with HIV (PLWHIV). Those days, “counties” in Kenya were still call “districts” and I was supposed to go to all districts to form support groups for PLWHIV and have discussions how they can manage their health using herbs and foods. That time, I was really championing traditional medicine and food, especially since there were no medications. People were losing their lives to opportunistic infections and no one knew how to handle it. I had some little info on herbal medicine, and realized that we can manage opportunistic infections. I was so excited to explore this and learn from others, to learn from their grandmothers. That is when I participated in developing “Using Our Tradition”, TICAH’s first guide. We started to research on how to treat opportunistic infection using the knowledge of our grandmothers.
5) What’s something that drew you to TICAH?
I learned about TICAH through Dr. Olum, a herbalist who used to treat me. We became friends as I used to ask a lot of questions and share what I knew about plants. There was a conference for herbalists that TICAH co-organized to explore methods and what people say about herbal medicine and indigenous foods. I was part of the conference and came to share my story using herbal medicine. It was a success story. That is where I met Mary Ann Burris, TICAH’s founder.
When I joined TICAH, I joined as one of the support group women leaders, known as the “Kudus”. This support group was talking about the challenges women face, even talking to our children, supporting each other, giving morale that you can make it. We wanted to talk about our sexuality and pleasure as women living with HIV, where women can talk freely. Those days, sex and reproductive health for PLWHIV was highly stigmatized. HIV is a sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) issue, but often people don’t connect HIV with sexuality. But they go together. That’s why I still continue to support both of TICAH’s programs (Healthy Households and our Sexuality program, known as Our Bodies Our Choices) to date, they go together.
6) What’s one thing that people don’t understand/know about TICAH?
One thing people don’t understand is how TICAH operates, how the programs link together. Sexuality, herbal medicine, food, art… People separate these topics but they are one thing. If you think about health holistically, we need to be healthy for us to enjoy our sexuality, our rights, anything. We have to be mentally healthy. To me, it’s one thing we are doing through different approaches to address issues that affect human beings.
7) What’s one word you would use to describe our team at TICAH?
8) What’s your favorite part of your role?
Community outreach and facilitation. I LOVE facilitation. I connect well with human beings, if I go out, I can be very flexible. If you tell me today, go to Turkana, I will do it. I will figure out challenges as they come. Positively changing the attitude of one person, I am fulfilled.
9) Which of TICAH’s values comes alive for you the most every day?
Listening. Very important. TICAH’s value to listen to people. Because we learn a lot from the people we work with. We are not experts. I like saying that people are the authors of their stories. If you listen to them, you learn a lot from them.
10) If you could relive one memory from your time with TICAH, what day would it be?
The day I first attended the International AIDS conference in Mexico. The play “I’m Sexy Too” really changed my life. Me telling a story on behalf of other women living with HIV. I told my story in a way that I could not tell anyone.
11) Something you learned at TICAH?
Wow. I’ve learned a lot. But one thing that I learned from Mary Ann that I remember every day: Treat people equally. How you treat human beings… it doesn’t matter where they are coming from, their background… they are human beings. I treat each and every person with dignity. Humility is something we all have to embrace when we work with people, treating each and every one with respect.
12) What’s changed the most during your time at TICAH?
Change is normal. And I respect the change TICAH has gone through. TICAH is not like it was in 2008, back then we were only three staff. Now we are over 20 staff. Of course, we have new policies, structures, which is important when organizations grow.
Growth also made it difficult to connect with each and every person because we are many, and everyone has a different personality. For a person who is people-oriented like me, this is challenging – do I know how everyone is doing? Back then, if you were not okay, people always knew. And I want to make sure we are still there for each other even though we are many.
Because people are also coming in, we need to maintain TICAH’s culture and remind each and every person of our organizational values. So that when we are outside there, someone seeing me for the first time, they can tell that I am from TICAH.
Something that really we are taking on at the moment is to explore how to do our multidisciplinary work better. I’ve had the opportunity to work on all of the programs, I used to work for Art, Indigenous Knowledge and Culture (back then: Medicine Wheel) Sexuality, Healthy Households… so I can be able to tell you the achievements for the programs even if I no longer focus on them. We need to increase people’s interest in participating in other people’s programs. A person coming in for SRHR should comfortably be able to represent Indigenous Knowledge & Culture (IKC). If you send me right now to go to Turkana and represent IKC, imagine I will. Why? Because I am interested.
I am passionate about making sure people understand how we work when they join TICAH. How we handle tough questions. What we say when we don’t know. Because, saying you don’t know is a strength.
13) What does TICAH’s 20th anniversary mean to you?
Wow. To me, this is a big, big achievement. I am so excited to be part and see TICAH growing up to this level. One of my joys is the good work that we’re doing.
It’s not about the years, but the impact. The lives that have been changed through TICAH. I myself can say that I’ve witnessed hundreds and hundreds of women change their lives. I have seen TICAH do a great job especially in the slums to support changing attitudes for those who had lost hope. Living longer with HIV, being happy and being productive again. Getting their lives back. To me, that’s the achievement. What TICAH has done over the years, not the years themselves. Now we are country-wide. We are international.
14) Finish the sentence: If I wasn’t working at TICAH, I would be….
In my village supporting vulnerable women. I was born and brought up in my village, and what I went through I don’t want anyone else to go through. I would be in the frontline to end HIV and poverty, they go together.
15) Let’s get to know you a bit better personally: What’s does a great Saturday look like for you?
I just developed new hobbies. I think when you’re growing old, some things come back to your life. I grew up in the village and used to farm. Back then, I didn’t have any option, it was for survival. But right now, I realized I like farming every weekend. I travel to the village and spend a lot of time in my shambas (farm) with people, farming. I like dancing as well. I even dance in my bedroom. Since I discovered TikTok, I dance a lot. I smile a lot. And I go to the beach near my village in Homa Bay county. I drive there, relax, and listen to good music.
16) What’s your favorite song?
Mongali by Faya Tess. Let me play it for you now!
17) What are you most excited about for the next few years?
I am really excited about the direction that Healthy Households is taking right now. Over the years, we’ve been trying to lobby with the government and Ministry of Health to accept traditional food as part of HIV care. It has been a long journey, and right now we are getting there. I can’t wait for these partnerships with NASCOP.
18) Which of TICAH’s Strategic Goals are you most excited about?
Being a reference organization for information and knowledge on herbal medicine. Having others adopt our approaches. If people want to do research on herbal medicine and food, they think of TICAH first.
19) What does being one of the longest standing staff members at TICAH mean to you?
I don’t know how to explain it. It is a good thing. TICAH was not my first organization to work with, but I found a home here. I feel like I have to protect my home. And I value what TICAH does. I am very passionate about the work I am doing. That makes me not worry much about what I get, but rather what I give. Giving me the environment to do what I like most really excites me. It’s about fulfillment. That’s what being at TICAH means to me. Even if I am not feeling well, you will find me in the community. I get healed through that.
20) Any words you want to leave us with?
Let’s celebrate the success of TICAH together. Especially our uniqueness and our contribution to where we are today. Let’s not forget about the people who have supported us and the people who have worked tirelessly to make sure we reach where we are today as TICAH. And a special thanks to Mary Ann Burris. For trusting us to take care of her baby.