She has been through the abyss and back. As wife to Joe Muriuki, the first Kenyan to go public on his HIV-Aids status, Jane Ngima has endured humiliation, apathy and outright rejection by family, friends and employers simply for marrying the man at a time when the condition was only mentioned in whispers.
At 50, Jane can afford to freely talk about her treacherous journey in the shadow of a pandemic that has devastated millions of people globally. And despite being negative all through her life with Muriuki, she was treated as if she, too, was a sufferer.
The mother of three boys met Muriuki for the first time at Ndururumo Primary School near Rumuruti where she was teaching. Previously, a good friend of Jane, who was married to Muriuki’s best friend had told her about a handsome man whom she should know.
“We started corresponding through mail while I was at Shanzu Teachers College near Mombasa. Those were the days when you would send mail through the post office and wait for many days for a reply,” says Jane.
The two hit off and got married in 1989. All the while, Jane had no idea that the man he had married was HIV positive and he had in fact gone public with his status two years earlier. Three months into the marriage, he dropped the bombshell. She was shocked. What had started off as a love affair turned out to be the worst nightmare she will ever face.
“I had heard about the disease while in Mombasa. I associated it with immoral people. It was traumatising to learn that the man I had just married was not only HIV positive but that the whole world knew it. But I chose not to leave him while doing everything possible to remain free of the virus,” says Jane.
To compound her troubles, however, was the fact that she was three weeks pregnant. There was a possibility she and the baby might also contract the disease.
“Doctor after doctor urged me to terminate the pregnancy saying they could not guarantee the health of the child. I resisted all pressure with the view that whatever could go wrong already had and nothing could change the outcome,” she says.
After nine months, a healthy baby boy, Eric, was born free of the virus. Another hurdle was defeated.
Today, 24-year-old Eric is a landscaping graduate from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.
Jane’s woes increased toward the end of 1990 when a local daily featured her story to commemorate the World’s Aids Day. Those who knew her cut off their association with her while her employer at Jogoo House treated her as an unwanted individual.
“When I reported to Nairobi’s Heshima Road Primary School, the watchman told me he had instructions not to open the gate for me. I was referred to Jogoo House where I was told parents had said they do not want me to interact with their children. They said I could be transferred to the country’s least known rural areas and even then on condition that I do not mention my husband’s name. I was told only the minister (Education) could save me. It was almost impossible then to see a cabinet minister. Either way, I lost my job,” she says.
Locked out of formal employment due to the stigma associated with HIV-Aids, Jane joined her husband in Aids advocacy programmes to the point of representing the country in five different AIDS related committees.
Locally, she worked with women in Korogocho as well as establishing a child support system for children orphaned by Aids. Jane was also instrumental in setting up an Aids counselling centre at Kenyatta National Hospital.
Still, things were not easing up either on the home front. Having “stigmatised” her family, they were not comfortable with her staying with Muriuki and arranged several delegations to get her to no avail.
“Time and again, I told them I was not leaving him. I had already gone too far to consider quitting. They gave up. Interestingly, my mother became one of my ardent supporters in my quest to assist those afflicted by the disease,” she says.
Without a proper job, Jane began trading in rice whereby she would travel to Mwea, buy the commodity and sell for a small profit. But her customers disappeared when they learnt who she was.
Meanwhile, her other son, Jeff, was facing trials of his own at a school in Umoja. Here, he was being segregated by teachers and pupils alike. So bad was this isolation that she had to transfer him to another school.
Jeff is an information technology graduate from JKUAT and currently working with her mother at Elimu TV, an outfit that packages secondary school educational programmes accessible to those who cannot afford school fees.
Although Jane and her husband’s careers took different paths resulting in physical separation seven years ago, Jane says the experiences she went through caring for who is perhaps the “most famous Aids patient” in the country have enhanced her inner qualities, becoming more empathetic to others in similar circumstances.
As the world celebrated the World Aids Day on Monday, Jane says things have taken a turn for the better with both government and the public openly talking about the disease.
“It is interesting that today, a HIV-positive man or woman can make a decision to marry whomever they want unlike the past where such decisions were wrought with many risks. You see, Joe waited for death for 30 years and it never came so he moved on,” says Jane.
As of now Jane wants to channel herenergies in educating disadvantaged young people in society through Elimu TV whose content is compiled with the help of 24 teachers pooled from some of the best schools in Kenya.