I fondly remember my years as a little girl growing up in the village; he would always come home from the city carrying goodies for us. He was tall, slender and with a brown complexion. His warm smile and greetings would easily win you over, and for that, he was deeply adored by his family and fellow villagers; he was the epitome of charisma, kindness, and generosity. I dearly miss how he would call me “mummy’s gal” before softly pulling my nose and ears and asking me how I had performed in school. We loved him; up to this day, we still fondly recount the greatest lesson he taught us, “You don’t give out of abundance.”
In 1998, the life of a most vibrant, ambitious young man, who had taught us to push beyond borders for our dreams, was dimmed by the scourge that is HIV/AIDS. I was just a lower primary school student but I couldn’t avoid noticing the abandonment with which other villagers treated us during his burial. Rumors grew louder while those with fingers pointed at us and those who could, kept their distance as they did not want us to spread HIV to them! The stigma was real and it only served to increase our grief and pain. HIV/AIDS was a disease surrounded by lots of mystery; a virus that was created by the white man in a laboratory and injected into monkeys, who then spread it to Africans! It was a dangerous worm that ate up the bodies of the promiscuous up to their bones, leaving only a skull, protruding eyes, bony cheeks, and a sore-infested skin! Relatives of a HIV/AIDS victim were to be avoided like a plague.
Luckily to us, the stigma did not last for long as the villagers’ rumors quickly shifted to another family, barely a year later. The man of the family had died of an unknown disease…of course, that could have only been AIDS because he had become very thin, his neck very long, and his skin had turned grayish! A shadow of darkness seemed to have been permanently cast upon this family, as the man’s death was quickly followed by his daughter’s, then his granddaughter’s. Villager after villager, some who were very well known to me, died amidst the HIV/AIDS pandemic confusion. I was too young to know what was happening in the rest of our country; but one thing was certain, this pandemic neither had a cure nor did anyone know its origin, except from the monkey and white-man tales.
The forever inspiring story of Asunta Wagura, a Kenyan heroine who resolved to boldly fight the HIV/AIDS nightmare by publicly announcing her status, dawned a new phase for many a Kenyan; both the positive and the negative, as well as for me. Asunta’s story of HIV infection ushered in a new wind of hope, that, indeed, what seemed to be a death sentence was actually not. True to this new lease of hope, I witnessed strong women in my community refuse to succumb to the deadly killer, by fighting back society’s stigma after their husbands’ demise. I witnessed women rising from their death beds with sore-stricken skins and contributing, once again, to their country’s economy through businesses and employment. A new era of Anti-Retroviral (ARVs) Therapy drugs had just descended upon Kenya!
Sadly though, this new hope could only last so long, as the society shamed and stigmatized the plump, curvaceous, and tender-looking women. It was said that ARVs made women add weight and look very healthy in order to disguise their status and infect men! Woe unto light-skin women with a penchant for elegant dressing! Amidst the shaming, though, women in my community developed thick skin and sought to live their lives to the fullest, not giving up a single day; 15 years down the line, however, I see these women and clearly realize the true definition of strength. Indeed, how else would you define strength if not the ability to rise up from a death bed, walk straight to the door and boldly face a mean and judgmental society…and just when it starts throwing stones at you, you boldly walk back to work with a sore-infested skin, death clearly written on your face!
A new era of boldness and strength, rising up from the ashes of HIV/AIDS, was ushered in by these women. This era not only gave the infected people, in my community, courage to go to local hospitals and get ARVs medication, but also hushed down the sharp tongues of rumormongers. HIV/AIDS testing and condoms became a norm as years passed by. Though awkward, I wasn’t very surprised to find a condom dispenser in my campus hostel when I joined the university in 2010.
Over 20 years have passed now, and most Kenyans have not only understood the meaning of the acronym HIV/AIDS but also how to prevent oneself from infection. The stigma has almost faded away as ARVs have helped prolong lives of the infected, making HIV/AIDS a condition rather than a death sentence.
This hope might be short-lived though as fresh cases of HIV/AIDS infection in Kenya, soar each day and night. A July 2016 headline by the Daily Nation “Kenya sees a ‘dramatic’ rise in HIV infections” captured my attention; I was shocked to read that the number of infections in Kenya is growing faster than in any other country in Sub-Saharan Africa. Between 2005 and 2015 the number of new HIV infections grew by an average of 7% per year, one of the highest increases in the world. A 2016 report by the National AIDS Control Council didn’t make things good either as it indicated that at least 35,000 new HIV infections had been reported among young women aged 15-24 in the last one year. Sadly, my community hasn’t been left behind… if the number of deaths among my primary schoolmates, in the past two years, is anything to go by.
As a fresh wave of rumors begins to build up in my community, I can’t help but ask if my country will ever see a total end to this darkness. Indeed, how can this epidemic, which claimed the life of our dearest, end; if Kenya has never set aside funds and proper systems for prevention, care, and treatment of HIV, but instead relies on random projects? How can we avoid fresh infections if sexual health education is surrounded by so much shame, that we avoid it at the expense of our children? How can we fight a winning battle against this plague, if HIV Testing is surrounded by stigma? Yes, how can we… if a man relies on his wife’s HIV test results and forcefully shares her Anti-Retroviral Therapy Drugs?
This post was submitted in response to United in Our Fight Against HIV/AIDS.