What you need to know:
- Now in her early 40s, Wairimu boldly uses Facebook, Instagram and YouTube to create awareness about the disease.
- The stigma started when news of her positive test spread like ash that had been thrown in the air, courtesy of a close friend.
About 1.4 million Kenyans are living with HIV, and among them is Susan Wairimu Metta.
Five years ago, Wairimu was diagnosed with HIV and lives to tell her story of hope. Now in her early 40s, she boldly uses Facebook, Instagram and YouTube to create awareness about the disease, helping the newly diagnosed deal with denial and trauma.
She became an activist, advocate and counsellor, after doing a course in HIV counselling and home-based care after the HIV diagnosis, a shift from her previous career in the hotel industry. She also works at LVCT-Health as a volunteer.
“I normally join them as a HIV advocate, whereby I share my journey of living positively,” she says.
Besides creating awareness through social media, Wairimu also visits schools, where she gives talks.
“My social media followers who work in hospitals call me to teach communities and sensitise them on the disease,” says Wairimu, who also runs an organisation called Team Oasis, based in Kitengela, Kajiado County.
Having worked in the HIV awareness space, the one thing that she sees Kenyans do not know is that ‘Undetectable’ equals ‘Untransmittable’ (U=U). This means that people with HIV who achieve and maintain an undetectable viral load - the amount of HIV in the blood - by taking antiretroviral therapy (ART) daily, as prescribed, cannot sexually-transmit the virus to others.
“Most people are not aware of this and others don't believe it even if told,” she says.
But what compelled her to go for HIV testing?
In 2018, while working in Juba, South Sudan, she got sick. She thought the symptoms were related to job loss.
“I lost weight and was unwell on and off. The company that I was working for closed and I came back home. I was jobless. I got so stressed that by January 2019, I was a shell of myself. Because I had almost all full-blown signs, I suspected it was HIV. I decided to go and test. The results came back. I was HIV positive,” she says.
“I came to realise that when the virus has compromised your body's immunity, you will struggle with persistent opportunistic infections, which are different kinds of diseases. They attack your body because your immunity is low. I lost 48kg and my hair too. I had no appetite. I had a persistent running stomach. If I ate anything, I'd have diarrhoea. I had numbness in my feet and recurring malaria. My eyesight was affected. I was almost at full-blown Aids. Most people with HIV might not experience similar symptoms depending on their immunity and also when one gets tested,” she says.
Wairimu used to weigh 108kg but had shed weight to 60kg.
“When I was told I had HIV, it was a bittersweet reaction. I had seen people living positively, so I knew I would make it. I knew the disease wasn’t worse than cancer. It doesn't mean that I didn't fear what life would be like or if the drugs would resist my body. But I’m a strong person and I love myself. I am a firm believer that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and if life throws you lemons, make lemonade," she says.
While doing the tests, her siblings were with her at the hospital, but when the results came, she was not bold enough to tell her parents.
“It took me a year to tell my parents. I wanted them to see that I was strong. To date, they are my biggest supporters. At home, we talk about my condition even with the pre-teens in the family (nephews and nieces). Well, as for friends, I lost some, I gained new friends. But two of my long-term friends helped me till I got back on my feet,” she says.
But the boldness was not instant.
“The first night I didn’t sleep. I cried when the reality hit me that people would perceive me differently, and life would never be the same,” says Wairimu.
The stigma started when news of her positive test spread like ash that had been thrown in the air, courtesy of a close friend.
“I told my then-friend, a salonist, that the reason my hair was falling off was because I was HIV-positive. Within hours, she had told the whole of Kitengela. I started getting calls from people and also others came to see me in disbelief, thinking it was a lie. They asked. I found myself answering ‘Yes, it is that way’. My ‘Yes’ was followed by silence. I realised owning my story would free me from the stigma of being gossiped around by very many people and fearing to walk outside. The more I told people I was HIV positive, the less they gossiped," she says.
Some of her friends, she says, walked away from her.
“I remember one time we went out and some women pulled away their friend and told her not to talk to me because of my status. I just laughed," Wairimu says," Stigma never ends, it reduces.
What keeps Wairimu going is that she has come to realise that life never stops with HIV+ results.
“We need to erase the old mindset of ‘HIV kills’. Aids does, but not HIV. Nothing changes apart from your blood status. Your life continues normally. HIV is a very manageable condition as long as you forgive and embrace yourself. Imagine getting medicines for free, yet cancer, diabetes or high blood pressure patients are burdened with the high cost of treatment. As long as you are eating right, not missing your medicines or re-infecting yourself, no one would even know that you're HIV positive," she says.
What does her meal plan comprise?
“Well, we don’t have a specific kind of diet. Just a normal healthy balanced diet as everyone else. I love managu, sagaa and kunde veggies. I use locally-milled maize flour in my ugali. I love fish especially, Nile perch, for its soup. Also, omena is good, plus water is essential; enough water helps clean the system, I also walk daily as part of my exercise," she says.
Three things that she hopes stick like the gospel are; self-love, self-awareness and self-acceptance.
"These are very important to someone living with HIV. Shut your ears to naysayers. Since I started talking publicly about my status, I stopped being a victim and became the counsellor. Some friends and I even started a WhatsApp socio-support group where we talk about our challenges and encourage each other,” says Wairimu.
She emphasises the need for testing.
“If you test positive, accept, and you will live a longer normal life. If you are negative, don’t stigmatise those living with HIV. Anyone is a candidate. Also, share love. Everybody needs love, not judgement," she says.