Sitting in the humid air inside a tent, listening to the palm leaves sway and the support poles creak, and with her hand clasped on her cheek, Zainabu can still hear the words ringing in her head:
“You have been tested positive for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the micro-organism that causes the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).”
When the doctor announced the results, a mood of gloom and despair descended on Zainabu. She did not know where to go or what to do.
“It seemed like my life and the livelihood of my children had been cut, since they all depended on me.”
Looking for a shoulder to cry on, Zainabu wondered whom to inform or talk to. Her family and the community had no place for HIV-positive people. “I am an abomination,” Zainabu thought to herself.
Zainabu has had a difficult life. Harsh living conditions and extreme poverty left her trying to sell fried cassava and sometimes exchanging sex for money to support her family. This is how she contracted HIV, all in the name of providing for her young family.
Sadly, Zainabu’s story is not an uncommon one in Kenya. The prevalence of HIV among Kenyans ages 15-64 is 7.1 percent, which means about 1.4 million people live with HIV (Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation – Kenya World AIDS Day Address, Dec. 1, 2009).
When Zainabu learned she was HIV-positive, she stayed in denial for some time. She came to grips with her situation when Compassion child development center staff members visited her home during their routine home visits and noticed her ill health. She then had the opportunity to disclose her HIV status.
The staff came to her help and encouraged her to think about life, and began to help her develop goals for living positively. It was during this period that she was given access to health facilities and connected to a doctor who advised her to join support groups and disclose her status.
“After long soul searching and prayer, I joined a local support group and disclosed my status publicly. After disclosing my status, I felt relieved. It was the best medicine for my disease. A new sense of hope arose in my spirit. A dawn of a better future emerged with high determination and commitment to face the disease head on. My anguish and fear were all gone, I could now break the silence, all because Compassion cared for me through the church and the access to health facilities.”
Zainabu joined Jipe Moyo Support Group, an initiative supported by the child development center which educates its members on HIV and AIDS. It also empowers family and community members with knowledge of long-term support and care, and raises acceptability of People Living With HIV/AIDS (PLWHAS) by family and community for stigma reduction. Jipe Moyo in Swahili means “take heart, take courage”
As a leader in the group, Zainabu has been very resourceful in the startup of a unique approach to helping PLWHAS. Through community education and meetings, she has helped ensure that other members of the community protect and give support to PLWHAS.
Zainabu’s CD4 count has improved significantly, and she has discovered hope and inspires hope in others suffering from the same condition. She now earns her living as a counselor helping other women and families to protect themselves against HIV and AIDS. She also has a small-scale business selling planting seeds and cereals.
Zainabu thanks the pastor and Compassion for allowing her to be the beneficiary of a revolving loan fund, where she got Kshs 5,000 to start the business.
“Since I joined Jipe Moyo Support group, I have gained a lot of knowledge and experience on new strategies for education on HIV/AIDS and therapeutic nutrition for People Living With HIV/AIDS. I have also acquired a lot of spiritual, psychological, emotional and economic support from the group.”
Zainabu admits that she has sometimes wondered whether proclaiming her status has put her at risk of ridicule and discrimination. However, she takes it in stride and still commits herself to protecting children and caregivers against HIV and AIDS in the center. And she says that her experience with HIV has increased her faith in God.
“I was running a race moving full speed, when suddenly, Wham! I hit a wall of HIV/AIDS. I was tempted to quit, turn back in defeat, perhaps fall down and die. But I didn’t.
“I have learned a lifelong lesson that when you feel the worst, when failure is breathing down your neck, look up and reach out to hope as never before. Believe in God and like dawn in the morning, light will come pouring in. You will see a breakthrough by breaking the silence. All you have to do to speak the Word is to have faith in the Word of God and in your God-given potentials.
“Breaking the silence and disclosing one’s status is the greatest challenge. I am not going to tell you it’s easy. The truth is, it is tough. Nevertheless, pushing on through the tough times is inevitable if one is to have a breakthrough.
“Once that happens, you will never be the same. You only need to take a step of courage and break the silence to make a never dying, never-quitting champion out of you.”
In her situation, through the assistance of church staff, Zainabu has brought light to the community. The development center offers free medical camp and voluntary counseling and testing (VCT) services. It also invites people in the community who are HIV-positive and are happy to speak to encourage others about their status.
Staff members raise awareness about the need for antiretroviral therapy medicines for people with HIV, raise awareness about the need to accept people with HIV or AIDS, and raise support for children whose family members have HIV- or AIDS-related illnesses.
Zainabu also encouraged her mother to go for a test, and she turned out to be HIV-positive.
“As a family, we have committed ourselves to helping other people. Our advice: Eat good food, be faithful in your marriage, go to hospital immediately when you have an infection, plan your family, keep your mind on good thoughts, and share your problems — do not hide them. I can now work hard and focus on my health and that of my family.
“I am determined to see all my children finish school, go to university and even get married. I am determined to make the most of my new life. HIV should not stop anyone from achieving his/her goals in life.”
Zainabu was able to avoid transmitting HIV to her youngest daughter during childbirth. Zainabu is a happy mother because the baby was HIV-negative.