Testing HIV-positive is often a nasty shock, but the situation is made even worse by rejection from friends and relatives.
Women often face rejection and stigma in communities where people living with HIV are viewed as lesser beings and not allowed to interact freely with everyone else. This leads to loss of self-esteem, affects income-generating activities and further stresses individuals often still reeling from the shock of testing positive.
When the women in question are mothers, the blow is twofold. This is what motivated Mary Wanderi to start Living Positive Kenya. Mary’s mission is to bring these women together and help them reclaim their self-worth socially and economically.
Most of the mothers in her programme are from Ngong’s Gichagi and Mathare slums, where cases of defilement and rape are common. Living Positive not only offers psychological and moral support, but also offers skill training. The women learn tailoring skills, mosquito net production, candle making, and bead working so that they can support themselves and their children.
With the income from their businesses, these mothers can afford the nutrient-rich food they require. Many also move out of the shantytowns because they can afford housing in safer neighbourhoods. Some have even bought land on which to put up houses.
“Our hope is that through economic empowerment and the support group comprising women facing the same challenges, these mothers will progress in life and wash away stigma,” says Mary.
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“I started Living Positive Kenya after seeing the desperation and rejection the slum mothers went through after they revealed their HIV-positive status. I’m a social worker by professional and worked in an orphanage where I helped children of vulnerable and HIV-positive mothers. I felt it would also be wise to help the mothers, so that they can improve their lives and those of their children.”
When she started the programme in 2009, Mary wanted the mothers to be transformed forever, not merely giving handouts to sustain them for a few days.
Before ‘graduating’ from the centre in Ngong Town, the women have to go through three stages; HIV intervention, introduction and polishing of skills and development of a business plan.
“In the first stage, the women are offered psycho social support before they are introduced to new skills, advised on how to come up with a business plan, and then offered financial support to implement their plans.”
Each stage takes about six months, meaning that the entire programme lasts 18 months. This is considered adequate time to ensure all-round transformation in terms of mindset and behaviour, as well as an adequate grasp of the proficiency needed to run a successful business.
The project is sponsored by the Stephen Lewis Foundation — a Canadian non-governmental organisation that supports HIV and Aids-related projects in Africa — as well as good Samaritans from across Kenya.
The centre’s first ‘graduation’ ceremony was held in 2011, during which 15 mothers were given the. The total number of women who have successfully completed the programme so far is 36.
Mary says she draws the strength to continue her work from seeing mothers drawn out of the cocoons of desperation and rejection that they had been enshrouded in.
“When a woman realises that she is of great worth despite the bleakness of their personal circumstances, it is as if a new woman is born. This rebirth comes with renewed hope for the future and a fresh determination to make a success of her life.”
Ann Wamboi, a beneficiary of the programme, and also a community health worker at the Living Positively centre, says she learned she was HIV-positive 14 years ago, when her husband fell sick.
“My husband was unwell, and when I took him to hospital, we were both tested for the virus,” says Ann.
At that time, the couple was living in the Mathare slums in Ngong, where HIV was viewed as a strange disease. Those infected were avoided at all costs, so Ann and her husband were isolated by the community, facing rejection even from relatives and those they had considered friends.
Nobody dared to visit Ann’s house when her husband was ailing. When she dared to visit a relative or friend, the utensils in which she had been served would be thrown away.
“I took care of my husband without help until he died in 2006. Afterwards, I decided that I would work hard and take care of our daughter so that she can have a bright future,” she adds.
This is when she was introduced to Living Positive Kenya, where she received counselling and later got tailoring skills and finances to start her small business and become independent.
The programme also takes in needy women who are not HIV-positive. One is Dorcas Wanjiru, also from Mathare, who was diagnosed with throat cancer nine years ago and abandoned by her husband due to her health problems.
The mother of three has undergone seven surgeries and lost her power of speech, and relied on her fellow slum dwellers to raise money for her medication.
Dorcas, who uses an electrolarynx to speak, holds the humming device tightly against her neck with a smile on her face.
“I prayed to God to give me courage and hope so that I could live to help my children. Their father deserted us due to my condition, leaving me a helpless woman, but I didn’t want my children to be destitute,” she says.
Her prayers were answered when she was introduced to Living Positive Programme, where she was trained in tailoring. Later, she started a tailoring business in Ngong, and has benefited from bank loans, which have enabled her to expand.
Dorcas has great plans for the future; she has purchased a plot of land in Juja, where she plans to build a house for her family.
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