Ageing with the virus
At 71, Eunita Akinyi exudes vitality and a strong feminine appeal. She likes to keep her hair trim, which she wears alongside her disarming smile.
This granny from Malela village in Homa Bay County has been widowed for six years now. With her daughter and son long married in the neighbouring counties, Eunita is the only resident of her vast home that overlooks the dramatic Ruri Hills.
Her compound, though, is a hive of activity, with villagers coming and going. If she is not feeding her cattle and chickens, she is airing her maize, picking mangoes or scouring dishes. You will not find Eunita seated idly at home.
By the time she decided to take a HIV test in 2004, she had been ailing for years, hesitant to confirm the worst of her fears. One day she took the plunge and discovered she was positive.
Eighteen years later, she is still on medication, which has restored not only her vigour, but the hope of living her full life.
“I am healthier now. I do not fall ill easily. I am even able to work, unlike when I was younger,” she says.
She has her resolve to thank for a healthy life. “I defied the Luo custom [of wife inheritance]. I have raised my children to adults. Now I must take care of myself. How would I benefit from a man?’’ She poses before bursting into laughter.
Eunita admits that contact with multiple partners and alcoholism in her youth played a big part in her infection. She insists, though, that she does not regret her past.
“Whatever happened cannot be undone now,’’ she says with nostalgia.
‘‘The only thing I can do now is to manage my condition by taking medicine and living a healthy, responsible and active life.” At the local Malela Dispensary, Eunita is a champion. Unlike patients who hide their ARV drugs while collecting them from health facilities, this woman says she has nothing to hide.
“What is there to hide about my status?’’ She poses. ‘‘I am an old woman. I should show the younger generation that there is no shame in taking the drugs. You get support by being open about your status.”
At Kalamindi in Ndhiwa sub-County, husband, wife and daughter have observed the same routine for more than 10 years: taking antiretroviral drugs.
George Felix, 42, his wife Sarah Atieno and their firstborn daughter, Michelle Achieng, 20, are HIV positive. The couple has three other children, aged between 17 and four. All are negative. ‘‘I discovered I was positive in 2006. I was always in and out of hospital sick,’’ Felix narrates.
For a sick man and his family’s sole breadwinner and without a stable income, he would soon be overwhelmed.
Felix turned to alcoholism as an escape. This behaviour drove him to the edge. ‘‘I was drinking heavily. I could not even take my ARV drugs. My condition deteriorated.’’
Yet capitulating was too expensive. His life needed a turnaround, the sooner the better. On the advice of his doctor, Felix had to stop drinking and resume his drugs. The other option was to die.
‘‘Who would take care of my family if I died? I needed to live.’’
To this man, every additional year to his life is worth fighting for. He has a family to fend for and to protect.
‘‘When my father passed on, I had to fend for my mother in addition to my own family. It has been very difficult, but I have to keep fighting.”
He is healthier now, and grows bananas, sugarcane and maize on his farm. ‘‘As a man, I must take my children to school.’’
On lifestyle change, Felix says he has not tasted alcohol for more than 10 years now. ‘‘With this condition, you cannot even smoke to avoid complications.’’
‘‘When my wife and I want to be together as husband and wife, we must use protection. Our daughter contracted the virus because we had not known how to come together safely,” he adds.
After learning how to practise safe sex, the couple has been able to protect their subsequent children from getting infected. To young people, Eunita says responsible living is the only solution to a longer, healthier life.
“You must look after yourself. If you are promiscuous, this disease will not spare you. You will die early,” she warns.
She says she has been celibate for 10 years now, which has allowed her to regain her health. “I am an old woman. I cannot afford to sleep around. I may be healthy, but with age, my body is not as strong as it used to be. Being safe is my priority.”
She advises the youth to have one partner. ‘‘Some claim that I am out to stop them from enjoying their youth because I am old. This is not true. This disease does not discriminate based on your age. It will kill you regardless,” she says reflectively.
Sex among young persons below 25 is as rampant in Kenya, and is responsible for new infections among adolescents, according to data from the Ministry of Health. These infections are also high among people indulging in unsafe sex, especially sex workers, says Dorothy Esonwune, the project coordinator at Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Homa Bay County.
Dorothy explains: ‘‘It’s also high in peer groups where young users of drugs [who are HIV-positive] share needles to inject themselves.’’ She notes that most of these fall in the 15-45 age bracket.
MSF has worked in this county for more than 25 years, providing social support and care for HIV and TB patients and educating the general public on management and prevention through different community programmes.
MSF says those who contract the virus sometimes refuse to take their anti-retroviral drugs.
To young people who are defiant about their reckless sexual behaviour, Felix warns: “It’s your direct ticket to the virus and grave. Your health is all you have. Protect it at all costs.’’
For those who are already infected, he advises even greater care. “If you are in your first or second line, you must take care of yourself. Being in the third line of viral load is more difficult. You are required to take a higher amount of drugs to suppress the virus, which is difficult.’’
When he discovered he had the virus 14 years ago, Felix was devastated. Like many HIV patients, he thought his life had come to its inevitable end. And rightly so, the virus was felling nearly everyone he knew.
Two decades of behaviour change later, the father of four is a transformed man. Felix is the chairperson of a local support group of six, where members meet to discuss ways of self-empowerment and positive living.
‘‘You can live a full life by being consistent in your drug intake. You must also avoid behaviour that puts your health at risk,’’ he notes.
He looks into the future with even more optimism. ‘‘Our self-help group owns a farm where we rear chickens. We hope to raise funds and increase our flock,’’ he reveals.
For Eunita, every new day is to thank for as it brings more happiness and fulfilment to her. “I did not imagine I would live long to see my grandchildren. I am so proud of my son and daughter.”
She is even prouder of helping change attitudes about HIV in her community. “I have lived with the virus for many years. I am no longer scared about it. I use my story to inspire younger patients that they can live full lives with the virus. But only if they follow their doctor’s instructions.”
Eunita adds excitedly: “I hope to continue living and to inspire people.”