This is a story that we cannot let go without having our readers capture. It is a story of life and death. Living with HIV! “Nineteen eighty nine is the year Kanu wanted to build a sky-scrapper at Nairobi’s Uhuru Park, Nelson Mandela was still in jail and the Internet technology was nearly 10 years away. Amidst all these monumental developments, Aids still made the news headlines, as Kenyan doctors worked to provide drugs that could halt its spread, or at least prolong the lives of those who had been infected.”
|Aids awareness crusader joe Muriuki gestures during an interview at the nation Centre recently.
The media reports that, “it was in September that year that Joe Muriuki, a clerk with the Nairobi City Council, went for a HIV test because of some skin infection that refused to go and persistent night sweating that left him cold. But the news that awaited him was numbing. He was HIV positive. The worst was yet to come. Doctors predicted that it would be a matter of time before his wife, then three-weeks pregnant, also tested positive. In the light of those developments, they suggested that the Muriukis abort the foetus.”
When a person gets news of having been infected by HIV, life changes immediately. “Muriuki then started preparing for his death by packing his belongings to return to his rural home”, he narrates, “I was running away,” adding, “I thought it was better to die among my people.”
When thoughts of dying occupy a worried HIV infected person they start, “to prepare for the life thereafter”, and some like Joe even got “saved.”
The story is chilly. “These were fairly rational things to do then, as it is today. But Muriuki also did what was unthinkable then, as it is today: He went public about his status. Soon, people were vacating their seats in matatus to avoid his contact, his wife was out of a job and his two children kicked out of school. A bank wouldn’t accept his money. It has been such a long time that a majority of Kenyans repeatedly asked this week: “Is that man still alive,” when I mentioned his name to them this week. The gloom that pervaded December 1989 did lift somewhat, for Kanu did not succeed in rooting Uhuru Park out of the city; Nelson Mandela left prison, and the Green Belt Movement founder, then at loggerheads with the Government, was ultimately vindicated when she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, with the Uhuru Park campaign specifically mentioned as one of her achievements.”
Joe Muriuki was lucky. He did not die. He lived to tell the world his story. And he openly talks about it starting calmly, “Those were very difficult times,” Muriuki says easily, revealing the gap in the teeth that became synonymous with the tragedy. We suffered the social stigma and people started discriminating against us,” adds his wife, Jane. “We refused to succumb and continued on, despite the unending pressure from relatives and friends that I desert my husband. Muriuki, too, had his own fears. Those days, testing HIV positive was equated to a death sentence. It was a matter a months and…” Muriuki gestures helplessly. “You would be gone.”
The couple was lucky as, “The first few months came and went. “I had learnt by then that one could live up to three years. But after they lapsed, I learnt one could live for five years. After five years, I had known one could manage a lifetime.”
Now after a long time. To be exact, “Eighteen years on, Muriuki is convinced that one can live as healthy as others and he is a living testament of that resolve.”
Having engaged himself in helping others by telling of his story the media reports that the, “interview had to be rescheduled several times because he was out of the country, attending a World Health Organisation meeting in Geneva, when we first make contact. The following day, a jet-lagged Muriuki was in a lecture hall at Kenyatta University sitting his final year exams for a diploma in Public Health. After Christmas, there were more exams to sit. Then the rains flooded the city and for a while, we did not hear from him. Then he surfaced at the Nation Centre, walked in briskly and carried on with the story that he first narrated to a former Daily Nation writer Jemimah Mwakisha.”
“Then she was a young woman. I don’t think she was even married,” Muriuki says of the journalist, currently pursuing doctoral studies in the US.”
The media in moment of wonder thinks of Muriuki’s wife Jane. “So, what became of his wife? Jane tested negative but a prejudiced society found it hard to believe. Today, Jane is a community leader in her own right a leading HIV/Aids trainer and an emerging philanthropist. Together with her husband, they have helped different groups in Nyeri start community based organisations with the aim of sensitising people about Aids. The two are consultants on Aids issues.”
The wife is working hard. She has told the media, “Actually my occupation is to train people, groups or companies and any other organisation in areas related to Aids,” Jane, a trained teacher, says, adding that she had been doing it for the last six years.”
To reach many who needs her help, “She recently started a project to help orphans access higher education — Tabitha Orphans Project — which aspires to assist Aids orphans join secondary school. The project has four-acres in Lamuria in Kieni West division, where they plan to set up a school. “This is not a new project here in the country. We have Starehe Boys centre and Starehe Girls. But unlike the two, which only go for the brightest children, TOP will be admitting any girl irrespective of her academic performance,” Jane says.”
Many people who start projects like Jane has, they look for donors who understand the plight of the needy. “And to the surprise of many, Jane is not willing to look for an external donor to set up the school. She is raising funds from women groups in the district”, and she told the media, ““What I have been telling the groups, which are to be found in every place is that with a small contribution, they can support all the orphans in the district and help them get secondary education without relying on the so called donors,” she says.”
When looking for support, “She asks women to give at least Sh10 for the project, saying every child belonged to the community and people should not depend on donors to feed the needy. She had however tried to approach key donors and the rich who at first appeared interested in the project but gave her conditions she could not meet. She at first approached some rich people in Nyeri town asking them to give her their disused buildings to be used as classrooms for her project.”
To her disappointment, “None of them was willing as they said their buildings were for making profit,” she said, adding that a civil servant donated his four acres. An ever smiling Jane is the mother of three boys. Her last born, Eric Munyiri, the boy that doctors wanted terminated, was one of the top performers in the 2003 Kenya Certificate of Primary Education.”
When she wanted to get children she says she, “sought advice from a number of doctors who all felt that there was no need for me to give birth to a baby who would soon die”, adding, “I rejected their advice and left everything to God.”
The couples children are doing well. “Their second son, Mike, was also in the limelight early this year after he scored an A plain in the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education. He was among the top 100 candidates in the country and one of the best students at Nyandarua High School”, and now, “he wants to join Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology to do a degree in Mechanical engineering. Their first born son, Jeff, was an A- student at a high school in Kampala and is about to join the University of Dar-es-salaam to study electronic engineering.”
Jane was 26 when the husband went public with the disease that he already had but for Jane who knew nothing about it says, “Initially it was strange for me to be negative. I did not understand and thought maybe it was God’s will and therefore I decided to fully support my husband to overcome the social stigma or any unfairness he would encounter”, adding that she, “decided to embrace my husband and condition without limitation. And that is how we have been able to make it.”
The National Council of Churches of Kenya did good to Muriuki through counselling that they extended to his family.
And now, “looking back, he concedes that he had strayed and had other sexual relationships, although he cannot pin-point the specific woman who infected him.”
For Jane things are taking another turn. Those families who have the sickness trust her. And “today, Jane says that when women who are known to her realise that they are about to die after contracting the HIV/Aids virus, they call her. They tell me they have left their children with me since they are confident that I will take care of them.”
It is a matter of caring for one another. It takes courageous people to change sad times to better times for those who actually need it. “Today, things are totally changed, thanks to Aids crusaders like Muriuki. The stigma associated with HIV has dwindled (one can actually sue for discrimination), there are free anti-retroviral drugs to those who need them and HIV/Aids found space on the political stage, when it was declared a national disaster. Even insurance cover is available for Aids patients.”
But, “what does he consider his greatest contribution?”
He responds that his is, “To normalise Aids.
Yes, we agree with him because, “he should know. After 18 years, Muriuki is not on ARVs, goes for periodic medical tests and generally keeps healthy by eating well. It’s called the spirit of life.”
Many struggling with the disease should call on the spirit of life and not give into the stigma that is still around us.
By Korir, African Press in Norway, APN