Contracting HIV at 23 gave my life new purpose

Ruele Akeyo, a Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights advocate  based in Nairobi . 

What you need to know:

  • Ruele did not reveal his status to his family due to fear of stigmatisation.
  • It was only when his mother stumbled on the tell-tale blue pills in his bedroom when she was visiting him that he had to let her in on his well-kept secret.

Ruele Akeyo’s first sexual encounter was life-changing. Not in the flamboyant ways the coming-of-age moment is colourfully depicted in romcoms and novels, but in more consequential ways than he could ever have imagined. Two years ago during a routine medical check-up, Ruele, then 23, found out just how momentous the repercussions were. He tested positive for HIV.

“My heart literally stopped. I stared at the doctor and did not know how to react or what to do. I insisted that we redo the test, but the results were still positive,” Ruele, now 25, recounts.

In retrospect, he did not know much about living with HIV other than information he got from the Internet.

“I started googling about how to live with HIV but was actually hoping to stumble on a cure. I just could not accept what was happening to me.”

Furthermore, he was still in denial of his status and requested a friend to accompany him to hospital for yet another HIV test, which would be his third test in 48 hours. Nonetheless, he was hopeful, perhaps the third time would be the charm.

The third positive put his denial to rest. He came to terms with the new reality of his life and accepted no magical test could change his status. It was during post counselling that Ruele first came across comprehensive sexual and reproductive health (SRHR) education on living with HIV.

“I started accepting that I was HIV positive even though I was slowly slipping into depression. I was angry with everyone and everything that I had ever known and loved. I felt betrayed because I was not promiscuous. That was the first time I was having sexual intercourse yet I contracted HIV.”

Ruele did not reveal his status to his family due to fear of stigmatisation. It was only when his mother stumbled on the tell-tale blue pills in his bedroom when she was visiting him that he had to let her in on his well-kept secret.

“Over the years I have come to learn the value of truth. It was only when I told my family and friends about my status that I was able to get the support system I needed to live positively. My mother’s acceptance was enough for me to get me out of depression.”

For the first time in his life, he had a comprehensive conversation with his mother regarding his sexuality and HIV status. It was a conversation that rarely happened in his home and scantily covered in his school syllabus.

“I had to educate my family that I was not suffering from Aids but was only HIV positive, which is manageable if I adhere to my treatment.”

Ruele is now a SRHR advocate. He feels compelled to dispel stereotypes because “misinformation is actually killing people.”

Through speaking about his lived experiences, he has the opportunity to create awareness of HIV prevention and living positively. He believes that lack of information causes misguidance.

“I meet a lot of people in my space who do not have the right information with regard to SRHR, including healthcare providers. One recent encounter was with a healthcare provider who was not aware of ‘Undetectable equals untransmittable’ campaign’ -a campaign explaining how the sexual transmission of HIV can be stopped. That is, when a person is living with HIV and is on effective treatment, it lowers the level of HIV (the viral load) in the blood.”

Ruele’s concerns come amid the Ministry of Health’s ‘triple threat agenda’ campaign, which seeks to eliminate teenage pregnancies, gender-based violence and HIV infection. According to the National Aids Control Council (Nacc), Kenya has the third highest teenage pregnancy rate in the world with about 80 births per 1000 births being from teenagers.

Furthermore, Health Ministry Principal Secretary Susan Mochache revealed last month during public sensitisation in Mathare, Nairobi, that at least 98 new HIV cases occur weekly among adolescents aged 10-19 years. About 5,288 Aids-related deaths occur among children and young people. Lack of comprehensive sexual reproductive health education is one of the reasons fronted by Nacc as responsible for the surge.

Kilifi-based human rights defender Hassan Abdulwahid says there have been tremendous strides made in sexual and reproductive health; however, his grounded research still shows that most people are ignorant of safe sex practices.

“Most people are not even aware of combined preventative measures such as injectable pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure propylaxis (Pep) because there are inadequate policies on comprehensive sexual education. This should be introduced even in basic education institutions in an age-appropriate manner,” Mr Abdulwahid says.

“Although some parents and guardians may be wary of sexual education, the only way to curb new HIV infection is by empowering them to make the right choices.”

Planned Parenthood Global African Regional director Achieng Akumu reiterates the importance of comprehensive sexual education.

“Information is important in ensuring the right knowledge about sexual and reproductive health is disseminated. People think it’s just about sexual education, but it is really about scientifically accurate information on reproductive health as well as information about contraception, childbirth, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV. Having the right information will equip young people to make the right decision,” Ms Akumu tells Healthy Nation.

For Ruele, memories of his first sexual encounter would have been entirely different if he knew then what he knows now.

“People normally say what you don't know will not hurt you, but the truth is what you don't know will actually hurt you. Access to information prevents new HIV infection, especially among the youth. Education helps us to unlearn stereotypes and become enlightened. If I knew something as basic as a one-night stand could get you infected with HIV, I would have taken preventative measures.”