What you need to know:
- Life on the fast lane was such a blissful thing to me, and erotica such a nice topping of my night life, that I couldn’t extract myself from the snare. If you know me, you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t, allow me to introduce myself.
- I first tested for HIV in December 2010. It was funny. Funny and curious. The first test came back positive, and so, as is the convention, the medic had to do two more tests. I remember how exhilarated I was when both tests returned negative results.
- Actually, sometimes I feel like all my friends knew of someone I had slept with who had the virus, but they couldn’t face me and say it.
- Even though I presented with all the signs and symptoms of an ailing body, I just continued playing dumb. To tell you the truth, at the back of my mind there was this nagging voice that kept nudging me to go for a more comprehensive HIV test, but I was a tough rapper, and tough rappers do not listen to stupid nagging voices in their heads.
I am an HIV-positive rapper with a positive mentality.
My journey, my tormenting, life-changing journey, began in a bar sometime in 2010. There was so much demanded of me, and so much that I demanded of myself.
My wife had expectations of me that I didn’t seem to be meeting, and so she had turned into what we men like calling “a nag”.
There was too much strife between us, but other than the domestic issues I had other mountains to climb. I should have carried the right gear, but I didn’t...
There is a new music video called 'Inuka Sasa' (Rise Now) that is doing the rounds in Kenya’s entertainment circles.
In one of the scenes it features a man in a bar, straddled by two skimpily dressed women. As he caresses the beauties, the man seems lost in the erotic moment, consumed by the fires in his groin.
That man was me, Richard Amuok, a few years ago. Life on the fast lane was such a blissful thing to me, and erotica such a nice topping of my night life, that I couldn’t extract myself from the snare. If you know me, you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t, allow me to jog your memory a bit before we get into this story.
I was one of the first rap and hip-hop artistes in the country, and so committed was I to those two genres of urban music that I was a founder member of two of the biggest musical groups of the late 1990s; The Achong Pong Clan and Ukoo Flani.
You might have seen me in nightclubs, doing the rounds and generally having a merry time. Well, that is no more, because I am now HIV-positive. I confirmed my status in 2012 after living in denial for two years after an irresolute initial test in 2010.
I first tested for HIV in December 2010. It was funny. Funny and curious. The first test came back positive, and so, as is the convention, the medic had to do two more tests.
I remember how exhilarated I was when both tests returned negative results. The medic asked me to go back after three months for another test but I did not. I did not want to know. Not knowing, I felt, was the better option.
Even though I presented with all the signs and symptoms of an ailing body, I just continued playing dumb.
To tell you the truth, at the back of my mind there was this nagging voice that kept nudging me to go for a more comprehensive HIV test, but I was a tough rapper, and tough rappers do not listen to stupid nagging voices in their heads.
The fact that I was unwell was evident; I had a stubborn rash all over my body that I could not seem to get rid of; I had the oral thrush; I was having weak spells and generally felt bad a lot of the time; and then I had these malaria bouts that just would not go away.
They were all opportunistic infections, I knew, but I continued living in a fog of fear and anxiety because I just couldn’t bring myself to confirm it. My health was deteriorating so fast because I drank heavily. I smoked bhang, chain-smoked cigarettes and wasn’t very keen on my feeding.
The symptoms would go away and then come right back after completion of the medication. I lost a tonne of weight. By the time I decided to just go and confirm it in 2012, I had become a shell of my former self.
Those close to me kept sending hints, but I totally ignored all of them and went on as if nothing was the matter. I was in denial.
In fact, the only reason I eventually went for the confirmatory test was that a friend coerced me to walk into an HIV/Aids awareness tent. I thought he was just joking, but now that I think of it, I think I can remember a stern look on his face.
It’s been long — three years, to be exact— but, unless my mind is playing games with me, I think the man actually coerced me to take the test. Brilliant friend, that one. It was as if he knew it already and just wanted me to confirm it. Actually, sometimes I feel like all my friends knew of someone I had slept with who had the virus, but they couldn’t face me and say it.
When I received the test results I was crushed and became bitter with myself. How could I have done this to myself? I know it will be hard for you, dear reader, to understand why one would get mad at oneself over an HIV test, so let me help you understand why.
This journey, this tormenting, life-changing journey, began in a bar sometime in 2010. There was so much demanded of me and so much that I demanded of myself.
WHAT DID I DO?
My wife had expectations of me that I didn’t seem to be meeting, and so she had turned into what we men like calling “a nag”. There was too much strife between us, but other than the domestic issues I had other mountains to climb.
In spite of having graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Information Technology from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in 2003, I had not found any job worth the credentials.
All I got were temporary teaching jobs and the music business wasn’t doing very well.
So the bar became a very tranquil place for me. It was more peaceful than home. And it was here that I met her.
She was beautiful. Agreeable. Nice. Lovely. Shapely. And, most importantly, not a nag.
She was my escape and comforter when I felt harassed at home. She was nice, but also, as I would learn years later, a very dangerous woman.
I wouldn’t really say I was promiscuous as she was the only other woman other than my wife with whom I slept without protection.
Well, there may have been another one here or there, but I used protection with those, so maybe I was careless. Or promiscuous. Or just foolish. I don’t know.
So why didn’t I use protection with this one, you ask. I wish I could answer that, but if I do I might end up lying to you.
All I know was that she looked nice, smelled fresh and felt quite the healthy woman. I had no reason to believe there was anything wrong with her.
We were together for about a month before drifting apart, and that was it. She disappeared without a trace, leaving me with so many unanswered questions.
But the people in my clique seemed to understand what kind of woman I had been with.
Due to self-stigma, I relocated to the Burukenge slum neighbourhood of Mombasa. I felt like the scum of the Earth who did not deserve anything better.
Already, I had separated with my wife in 2010 after my first test, and she had taken our two children to her rural village, where she sought a new life.
In the slum, I sank to my lowest. Depression set in and I neglected myself even further.
Inside, I was hurting. Hurting and lonely. Hurting and lonely and severely depressed. I felt pretty less than human. I lost the will to live. Or to even try to.
Everybody else around me seemed to behave towards me as if I had already been served my sentence to the grave. And for a moment I just went with it. I was at the end of my tether but still kind of hanging on.
Already, from earlier on, because of the negative gangsta image associated with the kind of music I was doing, my father had banished me from his home and did not want to see me.
By the time I was in secondary school I was already performing in clubs, but my relationship with my family became even more strained after they learnt of my situation. I did not get the opportunity to tell my immediate family directly because they did not want to see me.
So I told my uncle, and he spread the word.
By the time my father and I got to reconcile in 2014, he was on his deathbed. He passed on two weeks later, escorted to meet his maker by cancer.
There is this prevailing notion that the days of stigma against people like me are well behind us. That’s a lie, because stigma is still very much alive.
Most of the myths associated with the virus in the initial days may have been burst, but people still just look at you with these frightful, empathetic eyes when they learn you are HIV-positive.
From my front-seat journey into the world of HIV, I have learnt that there a lot of people who are still ignorant about the virus, and many more others who are HIV-positive but don’t even know it... because they don’t want to know.
It is because of stigma that most support groups are dominated by women.
For the longest time I was the only man in our support group in Mombasa.
I stepped out to start a men-only group but found it was very hard for men to come out about their status. Yet unless those of us who are infected put our faces and our words to this virus, it will continue to destroy lives.
People may pretend that they are okay with you, but deep down they are not. I have been to homes where I was served tea in the same single cup every time I visited, for instance. “Let’s set this apart from the rest of the cups,” the family must have rationalised. “It will be exclusively his.”
And stigma is not the reserve of the lay; a lab technician once told me to my face that he was not sure that I could not “poison” him and carried a glass of juice he had been drinking into the back room of his laboratory.
He had just withdrawn my blood for a test. These reactions are shaming, but they are propagated by ignorance, so I forgive them.
Late last year I read two books that helped me find myself again; The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, and The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren. They gave me a second lease in life and I have since managed to snap out of my depression. Now I feel at peace with myself.
After my big adjustment mentally I am trying to keep a “positive” outlook on how things truly are, and I have made the decision not to let the pain be in vain. Instead, I want the pain to reward me so that I know it was not in futility that I acquired the virus.
This year in January my wife and two children came to live with me here in Nairobi because I did not want my children to grow up without a father.
I am happy most of the times and try to live life as normally as possible. I am now past the level where I feared being alone because I was discriminated against, or feared having to tell someone I am HIV positive and getting that pitiful look.
It is because of this ignorance that I am making it my life’s mission to encourage others and to let them know that life continues even after HIV.
I have suffered stigmatisation and when I came through I promised to help others overcome through my music.
I want to be a part of the solution and not the problem. That is why I am using music as an outlet for my message. I will sing about it until the hens come home to roost.
Today I have something to fight for; HIV gave me something to live for. I know it sounds bizarre, but now I think of it as a blessing than a curse.
And this is the right time for me because I am afraid that the noise about HIV is dying. I remember the early days of the epidemic, and I worry that the lessons of the past are being lost on those who just want to forget them or are too young to have lived through those darker days.
I always did music like everyone else for the sake of entertaining, but now after discovering my HIV status I have a new purpose for my music.
I not only want to remind people that the virus is still being transmitted in intimate encounters, but also be a living reminder that this country is still dealing with a deadly epidemic.