The friendship between Faith Wambua*, 26, and Juliana Nekesa*, 22, has been forged through adversity – they were both born HIV positive and have lived a lifetime of drug taking, fighting opportunistic infections and other challenges of living with the virus.
They both say that they realised that they were different when they noticed they were taking drugs all the time. As little children, they thought it was normal, but this changed when they joined school and learned that it was not the norm.
Faith, who is a psychologist working with the youth, mostly in Machakos County, says: “I came to know about my status back in 2007. I was unwell, and in the process, a peer educator disclosed it to me because I was curious about my ailment. At first, I felt bad and stigmatised myself for a while, but with time I had to accept the situation because it wasn’t going to change anyway.”
For Juliana, it was a long process.
“I was started on ARV in syrup form. My parents told me they were vitamins and that I needed to take them to stay healthy. I had no problem with that,” she says.
She adds that as she grew older, she started sensing something was not quite right, especially with the endless drug regimen. Then there was a day she overheard her mother talking to a friend over the phone and HIV and herself were mentioned.
“When I entered the room where my mother was, she went quiet and this piqued my interest. I did not ask her anything at that moment, but at the back of my mind I knew something was afoot,” the International Relations student says.
The organisation her mother worked for at that time had life skills training sessions for staff children, which were held during school holidays. So one day before they went for a training session, her mother sat her down and took her through sex education. In the middle of it, her mother mentioned in passing that Juliana was different because she was HIV positive.
“At the training, my mum had made arrangements with two ladies who gave me full information and what living with HIV entailed. I did not react immediately. Later, I exploded with feelings of anger and being cheated. I cried a lot and thought I was just about to die,” she says.
Time is a healer, they say and with the passing of time, Juliana came to terms with her condition and resolved to live healthily.
While drug taking was a plain sailing affair when she was in primary school and was living at home, matters came to a head when she joined a boarding secondary school.
“I would look for a corner when taking my drugs so the other girls would not notice. With time this got tiring,” she says.
Her mother came to her aid. She went and explained the situation to the matron at Juliana’s school. After that, Juliana would keep her drugs and take them in the matron’s office.
“Every evening, those of us with various illnesses trooped to her office to get our doses. But there was a problem with this, too, because the girls would freely say why they were taking drugs; asthma, diabetes and other chronic illnesses. I could not openly say why I was taking my drugs, but I think I mentioned every other disease apart from HIV,” Juliana says.
Faith says she kept her condition to herself when she joined high school and that it was until when she was in Form Three that she confided in her best friend.
“It was quite a challenge because one has to make sure she is in a very safe place to take the drugs. That the drugs have to be taken at a particular time complicated the situation further,” she says.
Despite the challenges, the two young women successfully completed their education and Faith went ahead to train as a psychologist while Juliana wants to enter the field of diplomacy once she is done with her International Relations course, which she wants to pursue to master’s level.
The world of dating is a landmine for many young women and for the two ladies, it is more complicated due to being HIV positive. They both believe the right thing to do when they meet a potential lover is to disclose their status. The challenge is knowing at what point to do so.
There was a time Juliana met a young man and they took to liking each other.
Dropped the bombshell
“I knew I had to tell him the truth so one day I called and dropped the bombshell. I knew he would never talk to me again so I switched off my phone. When I turned my phone on at around 3am, I found tens of missed calls from him. He insisted that we meet the following day.”
Juliana says the young man turned out to be one of her best support systems. He read up on HIV and was soon an “expert” in that area.
“If, for example, we went out, he would make sure he carried my ARVs and he would remind me of the exact time to take them. He treated me right. Although the relationship ended, we are still good friends.
While Juliana says she has never faced stigma directly, Faith has been there.
“I have faced stigma so many times but I don’t let it get to me because it will definitely pin me down, which will hinder me from achieving my goals,” she says.