Change minds and saving lives in the aftermath of catastrophe

By Dorcas Kanyi in Kenya

Growing up as a young girl in rural Kenya, I remember dreaming up of a successful life after pursuing the education that my mother could never have in her time. She always reminded me of the great times I was living in; where girls could attended school, unlike the time when education was the preserve of boys and men.

My mother’s reminders motivated me to do well at high school and college, and soon I was working and independent. Thus I planned my adult life, and was careful not to rush to marriage. As is typical, I come from a big family and as I was one of the older children, I had a duty to care for my siblings. For some years my financial efforts were directed at ensuring their school fees were paid.

But soon time came to settle down, and I chose a young man from another country and moved over to begin my adult life.

Things were going smoothly and at some point I was thanking my stars that everything was finally taking shape. Soon I was pregnant and we were expecting twin children.

But things changed, and the fun that had marked the first three years of our relationship disappeared.

My husband was rarely at home and quarrels and arguments set in. Things got worse with the birth of our children and after two years, it was apparent that our marriage was at rock bottom.

Eventually I decided I could not take it anymore and packed up my bags and the two boys to go back to my own country. The fear of contracting HIV/AIDS and the physical abuse left me with little choice.

Back to my country, I slowly settled into a routine. It was not easy, but I summoned all my energies; after all I was much happier and had two lovely children to take care of. Soon the boys were going to school and honestly, we could not have asked for more.

We were happy despite now living a different life without the luxury we had become used to, but we would survive with the basic necessities. But this happiness, though, was short lived.

My younger son suddenly started experiencing health problems. One day he would have flu, the next headaches and the next high fever. Nothing serious was diagnosed but the usual child ailments. Except the symptoms did not stop.

One day I was called to school because he was just sleeping in class and the school was alarmed. I took him to hospital and the doctors decided to admit him for tests. After one week and various tests, he was discharged only to get worse. We returned to the same hospital a few days later, only this time in a critical condition.

Despite being admitted into the intensive care unit, he died.

This was the beginning of a life of challenges. Numb with shock and grief, I started making arrangements for his burial, only to receive a shock from our medical insurance provider. My son had died of a chronic disease that was not covered in the scheme.

It was in this way that I discovered the ‘chronic illness’ that took my son was HIV/AIDS.

I had abandoned my marriage for fear of contracting the very same disease that had now claimed the life of one of my sons. And the fate of the other son lay unknown. At this point I did not need to go for a test, I knew I was infected.

Dealing with the news of HIV infection, one son in the morgue and the fate of the other unknown all in one one day is the worst thing that can happen to anyone. At some point I just wished that I could die too. It was too much for someone who had carefully planned her life. My world had collapsed. I was emotionally drained, devoid of any pain, numb from head to toe.

I did not know who to share this devastating news with. I went through the burial arrangements like a zombie, not registering much and talking little, wishing away all the questions from family and friends about the death of my son.

For three months that followed I was at the extremes of desperation. It was the worst period in my entire life. I slipped into the most severe depression where I became withdrawn, always rushed to the confines of my bedroom where I would cry until dawn. This took a toll on my health and soon it was evident to those around me that something was wrong.

One person who noticed my distress was a female colleague at work. During one tea break, she asked me if everything was OK. Suddenly, all the emotions that had been bottled within me for three months could not be controlled any more and I just broke down. This is the question that saved my life.

My colleague followed me to my office and there, for the first time, I opened up about what I was going through. She had thought that the grief for my dead my son was taking its toll on me, but never thought that I was going a much bigger problem. Luckily she was in the HIV/AIDS department, and she immediately sought help. She arranged for counselling sessions and soon there was an entire team available to provide moral, social and financial support. At this time drugs were expensive and could only be sold on prescription.

Not all doctors could treat the disease. The team put me in touch with specialised medical support with their own finances. Soon I was recovering from the many opportunistic infections that I had been dealing with alone.

I owe my life to this great team that helped save my life. This team prepared me for the screening of my son which I was dreading. And the same team was with me as we celebrated my son’s negative status - a great day!

Then I made a decision to become active in HIV/AIDS advocacy for the sake of my departed son, and for the life of one I still had.

I started my new life journey seeking as much knowledge as possible on the disease. I enrolled on a training course to become a HIV counsellor and went online for a course in global health with USAID/John Hopkins Hospital.

Armed with some knowledge, I began talking to individuals about the need to get tested to learn their status, and later I talked to small groups of women at church. By sharing my experiences, I thought I might change their risky behaviour. From here I went on to larger audiences and within no time, I was being called on to give motivational talks.

A breakthrough came when, through recommendation, I was engaged by the government’s Probation Department to talk to ex convicts as part of their preparation for going back into public life. This I did for one year, travelling the whole country to talking to organised groups through the department.

The next step, was coming back closer to home and assisting infected women living in the slum area near where I live.

I formed a group and invited people to teach them about HIV and AIDS, ways to prevent mother-to-child transmission of the disease, as well as prevention, care and treatment. We also taught how to start small income generating projects that would help them afford a good diet as most of them were already in HIV treatment.

Now I’m back in formal employment with the Red Cross, but I have joined with other peer educators and continued offering private counselling sessions for staff and their relatives.

I have no regrets for taking this course of action when I see that we can help bring hope to desperate people and help them start living positively in their lives.

I have also become strong in my daily struggle with the fight with HIV and AIDS, and I believe that the war is not won or lost. There is still more to be done. The antiretroviral drugs that provide a lifeline to so many could be readily available now, but we must all rally together until a vaccine is discovered.

Ten years on, I am living a healthy productive life and enjoyng every minute if it. To those who are living with HIV and AIDS, I want to say there is hope and we do not have to give up on ourselves.

Clearly there is hope.