Helping HIV patients accept, live positively with the virus


Kenyans are no strangers to the buzzwords “accept and move on”. These four words assumed vogue dimensions after the March 30 Supreme Court ruling that firmly saddled Uhuru Kenyatta on the presidency.

In 1992, Prof Elizabeth Ngugi of the Department of Public Health at the University of Nairobi realised that warming up to one’s fate was an effective lifesaver for victims of HIV/Aids. She urged them to “accept their condition and move on”.

“Many people infected with HIV/Aids at the time were either dying or causing many deaths through denial,” she says ruefully. “I thought talking freely about the plague would help. This was only possible at centres where victims would assemble as peers with free food and treatment as incentives.

 Thus “Her Story Centre” concept was conceived. “Why Her Story and not “Their Story?” I wonder.

Prof Ngugi, with a guttural chuckle typical of achievers, says: “The majority of those bearing the brunt of the HIV/Aids scourge were women and girls, not men and boys. Stigma was harder on the former. For instance, while men sat pretty after losing their spouses to the blight, women ended up losing their matrimonial homes because society mistakenly believed they pawned the disease. Despair would take hold and sex work in urban centres was the easy option for such women to sustain themselves and their children”.

Prof Ngugi, a mother of one with an abysmal love for children, recounts how she cried with joy when she saw orphans who would otherwise have followed their mothers to early graves go to school through donor support.

“The envisaged centres had to embrace the welfare of orphans of which education and parenting were key components. Funds had to be found for the concept to succeed,” she says. She cites the Danish aid agency DANIDA and the UN Women. “We empowered surviving mothers who had abandoned sex work with vocational training in tailoring and other skills. Those who showed interest in business were encouraged to come together for small loans with the centre as collateral,” she says.

Memory book

A fleeting smile lights Prof Ngugi’s face as she launches forth on what she terms “phenomenal achievements”.

“We started off with a batch of 60 women, mostly infected sex workers from Majengo, Pumwani, Dandora and other Nairobi slum dwellings. The number at our Nairobi centre alone has grown to 1,700 today. We have landlords, shop owners, hotel and kiosk operators and mama mbogas,” she says.

 “Some are in happy family unions, their HIV/Aids status notwithstanding, thanks to their adoption of responsible sex behavior. Where pregnancies occur, everything is done to prevent the dreaded mother to baby transmission”.

Prof Ngugi talks proudly about a “memory book” where centre members are required to list their family tree. “In case a member dies, this book comes in handy to trace relatives who can play “parent” to the orphaned children. Where no relatives are available, we identify one of our members to play “parent” to an orphaned child.

The centre currently supports 200 children in primary, secondary and tertiary institutions. With a broad smile that eases the wrinkles on her face, Prof Ngugi blubs: “We have four university graduates so far, all products of “Our Story Centre”, among them Eng Titus Wakeru, a civil engineer from Moi University.

“The memory book helped us place Titus under his maternal grandfather’s care when he lost his mother at a tender age. She was our member. The centre mobilised villagers and built a house for his grandfather who had no proper roof over his head.

“Today, Titus is not only a successful engineer, but a married man and a father,” says Prof Ngugi, revered as mother by all the orphans under the centre.

A visit to the centre at Pangani area on Thika Road recently brought me face to face with members, some who were literally yanked from the jaws of death. Grace Ndunge, a mother of three, says she was on her deathbed when “Our Story Centre” reached out for her.

“I had lost 24kgs after suffering endless ailments and had boils all over my body. My skin was in a mess from a bout of herpes. I had resigned myself to fate and was waiting to die,” she says.

“A fellow sex worker who had abandoned her oldest profession for business as mama mboga after securing a loan from Our Story Centre discovered me in the nick of time. She convinced me to join a support group and become a member of the centre where I was counseled, treated for opportunistic infections, taken to awareness seminars and eventually put on antiretroviral drugs.

Ndunge says she has helped save thousands of lives through advocacy. “I have remained on the frontline teaching people to live positively with the virus or avoid it altogether through safe sex and abstinence. I am today employed as a mobiliser at the very centre that helped save my life.”

 Teenage mother

Jackie (not her real name) was 15 and in Class Seven when she gave birth, earning herself instant rejection from her parents. “I went to Nairobi to live with a relative and they followed me there upon which I fled to Malindi,” says the 53-year-old mother of one. “With nothing else to do for a living, I was into prostitution at 15, transferring my base to Tanzania and later, back to Nairobi”.

Age and sickness eventually conspired to subdue her but fate intervened and changed the course of her life when she discovered “Her Story Centre” through a fellow sex worker. Her boldness to state her status cost her four of her front teeth during the 2007-08 post-election violence when vicious rapists punched her on the mouth for revealing her HIV status.  “It was painful losing my teeth, but I was happy I did not pass my strain of virus to them and vice versa. They brutally raped my cousin.”