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Tiktoker: I was 23 when I tested HIV positive

RUELE OKEYO has been a sensation on social media after videos of him recording himself taking HIV drugs went viral. SILAS NYAMWEYA followed him to find out his motivation and how he deals with online trolls.

Briefly introduce yourself.My name is Ruele Okeyo, a man openly living with HIV, a human rights defender, an HIV champion, working towards eradicating HIV transmission, and a U=U ambassador for Kenya in Africa, under the prevention access campaign.

When and how did you learn of your HIV status?It was on September 24, 2020, when I went to an outreach program (an outreach is where the clinic comes to you instead of you going to the clinic). I tested HIV positive, and was distraught by the news that I asked the health care provider to repeat the test and the results still came back positive. Being in denial, I waited two days before I went to a clinic and did the tests again. The two tests came back positive, again.

What was your initial reaction?My initial reaction was shock, I was just 23 years old at the time. I had so much anger and pain because I thought my life had come to an end. Of course, I did not accept immediately, acceptance is a gradual process. You do not just wake up and say you have accepted, there will be so many bad days but the good will overpower them. One day I woke up and HIV no longer bothered me, but this was months after. Even before accepting, I was taking my medication because my health was compromised and I would not want to make the situation worse.

What was your motivation for recording yourself taking HIV drugs and posting the content on social media?For this, a close friend, Doreen Moraa, encouraged me to expand my audience reach. I was already creating messages and awareness on HIV but it was majorly audio. I needed to transition to video and she suggested TikTok. Upon investigation, I saw that some HIV activists were creating really sad content that made me angry. Instead of creating messages of hope, they were creating messages that do the opposite. In my previous work, people would reach out with struggles of taking medication, even in the comfort of their own houses. So by taking mine publicly, I thought that would change the playing field, which I can proudly say it has.

Can you say this has contributed to your popularity on social media?I can't say I am popular, although I would say that it is because this is something that most people relate to. A silent battle for most people who will not be in a position to do what I do, so I speak to them directly, according to statistics, there are 1.5 million people in Kenya living with HIV, and those are the people I create my content for.

How did you become a U=U ambassador for the African Forum?I applied for the call.

How do you deal with negative online trolls about your campaigns?It depends on the context really, often times I ignore it, and sometimes I educate and try to make you look at things from a different perspective. I try to figure out that maybe you do not have the information, but if you come ready to fight, I revert with the same energy lol!

What is the reaction of your family regarding your situation and campaigns, are they supportive?My family is supportive, my dad being my biggest supporter in everything I do.

What is the biggest challenge you are going through other than the stigma from the community?One challenge that people living with HIV face aside from stigma is medication adherence. Not so many people are taking their medication due to one reason or the other. And this is leading to the rise in HIV transmission, hence the work I do to reduce that by encouraging people to take their medication.

Your parting shot?You do not have to accept your health status to start taking your medication, acceptance is a journey. Start your medication because your immunity is compromised. Acceptance will catch up with you and you will be happy you started taking medication.

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