We talked to (Anonymous), who woke up one day to find bag of lemons at his doorsteps. Thanks life. At 18, he contracted the punishment of the world. Now, he is 21, pursuing a commerce degree in Kenyatta University, but when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” . He is among the 1.6 million Kenyans living with H.I.V. Out of that number, nearly half a million are adolescents. He did what he could to deal with it. Through it all, he has learnt that some things can never go back to the way they used to be. This is what he had to say.
1: Someone Could Infect You Deliberately
After I knew my status, I started knowing a lot of infected people. Remember that best friend of mum’s? She was positive too. Due to my openness, I am meet more people who are positive. But if you are negative, there is no way of knowing the status of your potential date. Some times, I might meet a potential mate and upon disclosing my status, she says ‘me too.’ Wow.Still, some people have it worse than others. What is worse than getting H.I.V? Getting super H.I.V. There are two strains of H.I.V . H.I.V 1 and H.I.V 2. In East Africa, the former is more prevalent, while the latter is almost exclusive to West Africa. The difference is that H.I.V 1 is more aggressive. It possible for one person to get the two strains. I know a friend from around KU who has both strains but refuses to use protection because after you get two H.I.V strains, what other lemons can life throw at you? Turns, it can transpose the spelling of lemons and hurl melons at you. Is melonade a thing? After you are infected, you can still be re-infected with a sub-strain of your strain if you have unprotected sex with another infected person. What did I just say? Let me explain using an example. If you have unprotected sleep with someone who is not infected and you infect them with the virus it will react differently from the way it reacted in your body and form another sub-strain. The next time you sleep with them, you get re-infected with another sub strain of your former virus. All this does is to complicate your treatment.
H.I.V can be a burden. You are faced with rejection and stigma from many places, but I prefer to take courage from a line I learned watching the Game of Thrones movie series, “Let me give you some advice bastard. Never forget who you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like an armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.”
2: Others Could be More Devastated than You
If you are observant, you have realized there is a gaping hole that threatens to crumble and sink this story into abyss. How was I infected? Well, just the normal way. Unprotected sex. In case you were expecting a flow chart diagram to help solve that mystery, sorry to disappoint you. I can actually pinpoint the exact day I was infected in September 2013. Since tonsillitis appears about a fortnight after the infection, I knew the girl I was with. After I tested, I called her up. She thought it was a joke. Just two weeks earlier I had sent her one of those ridiculous messages that youngsters everywhere send asking her what she would do if I had H.I.V. So when I told her I am positive, she thought it was a continuation of the previous joke. But then she noted my tone was serious.
By far, mum was the most devastated by my being positive. When my dad passed on in early 2000s, my mum was grief stricken as we all were. But I never saw mum so devastated as she was on the day she knew I was H.I.V positive. That really chills my heart.
3: You Find Support and Stigma from Unlikely Place
When I told my brother about it, his wife suddenly started treating me differently. Like handing me food via a 10 meter long pole. Just kidding. But her attitude changed completely. One week after the incident, I was ejected from the house on the pretense that they were expecting some visitors.I have mostly been open about my status. For instance, my roomies in KU knew about it and were very supportive. In fact, they would remind me to take my meds. But the more challenging bit has been getting a romantic partner. Whenever I meet someone I am interested in, I open up to them. Then they disappear into thin air. It’s like I have this magic stick, which I wave to make people disappear. Some even block me on WhatsApp and Facebook. For those who are unaware, H.I.V is not transmitted through chat messages.However, most of my friends are supportive. When I told my best friend from my former high school, he was shocked, but when he overcame the initial shock, we became even closer than before.In spite of the decay of the general public health sector in Kenya, I would say the care and attention that H.I.V patients receive in public health facilities is amazing. Generally, the government and medics pay more attention to communicable diseases. Even in KU, where the health clinic is atrociously lethargic, the university has put up a special facility dedicated solely to H.I.V testing and treatment. Whenever I go there, the service is efficient in spite of the long lines.
4: Your Family Might Know About Your Status via Unintentional Slip-ups
Question: What is the best time to tell your family you have tested positive for H.IV? None. They will never be prepared for it. My mother knew about it via a very hilarious slip up. During a follow up visit to the local hospital, I bumped into girl who lived in our next door. Everyone knew she was H.I.V positive but at that time I had not told anyone. I was not ready to reveal my status so I told her not to tell anyone at home about it. Now, if you know women, the maximum period they can hold a secret is 24 hours. She went and told my mum’s best friends about it and told her not to tell anyone. You can see where this is going. What did my mum’s best friend do? She went and blurted it out to my mum the same afternoon. I was not at home when it happened.
When I came home in the evening, mother was weeping uncontrollably. Between sobs she whispered, ‘is it true?’ at this point, I knew the cat was out of the basket so I said yes. Later in the evening, my sister came home and she found mother still crying. So I had to tell her too. And just like that, two close family members knew. That was in October. In November, I went to visit my big bro in Lang’ata. That time I was taking some tablets. Not ARVs. When you test positive, you are not placed on ARVs immediately. You begin taking ARVs depending on your CD4 count. In lay man terms, CD4 are the soldiers that protect you from disease while H.I.V is the terrorist stamping out your weakly soldier. It slowly wipes out your CD4 until none is left so that when you get some other disease, you are defenseless. For negative people, the CD4 count should be more than 600. When I tested positive, my CD4 count was 601. At the time, the threshold for beginning ARV therapy was 350 (It was later raised to 500). In the meantime, they put you on some tablets called septrins to prevent opportunistic infections.
When I went to Lang’ata, I had about ten packets of these tablets. Most of you know the living arrangements when you visit married relatives in town. You sleep on the couch. All your stuff is in the living room. One evening my 2 year old nephew was playing with a ball and it bounced inside my bag, when the dad went to retrieve the ball, guess what he found? Tens of tablets. So he asked and I had to tell him, and his wife too.
5:Life is Thrown Off-balance in a Flash
Two weeks later, when I went for a routine testing, I had no idea that it would turn out the way it did. My first reaction was denial. Perfectly normal because there are five stages of dealing with personal tragedy/shock; denial -> anger-> bargaining-> depression-> acceptance. At first, the mind is so shocked to accept that such a thing has happened. Then the reality hits home and you become angry at God for letting it happen, at your partner, at your friends, at yourself, your family, and everyone in your life. You wonder why you have been good all along if such a thing would happen to you. Then your anger subsides and you start to reconcile yourself to the fact that life will be different for you, but you have to be courageous. Depression is the most risky stage. People have been known to commit suicide at this stage. This is where counselling helps most. If you survive the depression stage, you accept what has happened and move on with life.
Additional reporting by P.K Njuru