In February 2012 at the age of 21, Lucy Wanjiku Njenga experienced every mother’s worst nightmare when her son, who was barely a year old, died suddenly. Then a few days later, she tested HIV positive. Despite the cards that life have dealt her, she has risen from the ashes to become a community leader who not only speaks for the voiceless on the global stage, but is changing the lives of young girls and women in her community. She narrates her story to Annie Awuor.
“I have been told that I not only speak with passion and conviction, but that I speak eloquently, yet I have no education beyond secondary school. I have also been told that I am bubbly and very positive, yet I have every reason to be sad and bitter. I am the first born in a family of three and grew up very timid and kept to myself a lot. Although I grew up in Dandora for most of my younger years, I also lived in Sinai, Mlango Kubwa, Eastleigh, Huruma.
I felt lucky to finish high school as school fees was a struggle. Shortly after, at the age of 19, I found myself in love for the first time and pregnant. However, my boyfriend was jobless and could not provide for me or our child and so we slept hungry on many occasions. Despite this, we tried to make the relationship work.
In June 2011, I gave birth to my son and named him David. However, in late 2011, my son began to get very sickly. I would take him to hospital and all I would be told was that he had allergies.
When I had attended my antenatal clinic while two months pregnant, I was tested for HIV and the results had come back negative. Back then, they only tested patients once at antenatal clinics. Now, they test multiple times even after the baby is born. When I was tested again in January 2012 at an open day screening, the results showed that I was HIV positive.
I remember being in shock. I kept wondering if my son was sick because of me. It broke my heart and I never even had time to deal with the news, my baby was the only thing on my mind. He continued to get worse and, about three weeks later on February 13, 2012, he died.
We buried David on February 17, 2012 at Langata Cemetery. The whole time, I kept thinking I was dreaming and that I would go home and find him. It was one of the hardest things I have been through in my life.
My son’s father and I continued to be together but he refused to get tested. The relationship eventually ended when I found him in bed with another woman. So at 21, I found myself learning to live without my son and dealing with the end of my first love. With the end of the relationship, I was forced to come to terms with my HIV status. For a long time, I was so mad at my boyfriend. Sometimes I believed he already knew about his HIV status even before we dated.
Surviving the heartache
I am now 26. When I look back on my life, I believe that I survived because, no matter what happens me, my philosophy is believing that there are always better days ahead. I am also an emotional person with an active imagination which has always been a safe place for me. Through my imagination, I created the type of world that I wanted and focused on that instead of wallowing in misery.
I also read and watch movies a lot. I easily get immersed in the experience. Most people use their imagination negatively, but if you focus on the bad then you will live in that. It does not mean that I do not experience the dark side of life. I do. I just choose to feel it fully, put it aside and then keep going.
I have always been stubborn and refused to listen to the “rules” of life. When the statistics said I was born in poverty and that would live in it forever, or that I would never have a career without a degree, or that I would never have a healthy child because of my HIV status, or be happy again, I put my foot down and refused.
On giving back
My life experiences were what inspired me to give back to the community. Nevertheless, because I did not have the money or education to start my own platform, I started out as a brand ambassador doing product activation and marketing, everywhere from supermarket aisles, to roadshows.
However, my heart was always for the community, I would see myself improving not just my life but the lives of the women around me. So, after I had saved up some money, I quit to start a restaurant and employed teen mothers from Dandora, but it failed. Then I became a trainer at the National Organisation of Peer Educators (NOPE) in 2013 and stayed there for about one and a half years.
In 2015, I started Sauti Skika in 2015, the first platform for adolescence living with HIV. But then I realised I wanted to do more than focus on HIV, that I wanted to empower women and young girls in Dandora. I started Positive Young Women Voices (PYWV) in 2017. I wanted to give back where I grew up, Dandora.
PYWV aims to empower our girls and young women to reach their full potential. We are currently involved in a number of projects that include ‘Adopt A Girl’s Month’. It is a sanitary towel drive where, with Sh300 donated by Kenyans and people all around the world through a crowdfunding platform, we keep our girls in school as they get mentorship. The donation gets a girl in Dandora community high school two packets of pads, a book and a pen. We have 5 schools, one in each phase in Dandora.
So far, we have reached 200 girls. In addition, we do advocacy against sexual and gender-based violence and you will find us marching in our community against gang rape, physical and emotional abuse. We are also involved in prevention of vertical transmission (previously known as mother to child) sensitisation, linkages and referrals.
I have always been good in public speaking, and because of this, I have travelled all over the world, giving talks at various conferences in Miami, Namibia, Ghana, South Africa, New York, Washington DC, Brussels and was recently a speaker at the AIDS 2018 conference in Amsterdam. This is one of the perks of being a community leader and it’s humbling to represent my constituents while travelling especially when it was a childhood dream.
Being a mother again has a been a wonderful gift. My daughter was born on November 1, 2015. She just makes my life rich. Was I scared about getting pregnant because of my HIV status? Not really. I had all the knowledge I needed, had good doctors through it and an amazing partner who made the journey bearable since I tend to be very ill when pregnant. I get Hyperemesis Gravidarum, which manifests with symptoms like severe nausea, vomiting and weight loss.
What I was most scared of was losing my baby girl after giving birth to her. When my daughter would have a little fever or a cold, I would go a little crazy with panic and rush to the hospital. I would also cry a lot. Having a baby again opened old wounds as I began to think about my late son a lot.
My daughter’s HIV tests felt like torture, though I did everything right. I would still worry and as a result I would postpone clinic days. However, I eventually pulled myself together and we did the last test and it was negative. I know that not all mums living with HIV get to have the last test turn out negative. However, it should not be a reason to give up. Just let your child shine on and you will be surprised at what the future holds.
Finding love again
My partner is the most beautiful, loving and kind man I know. He works as a visual artist. He makes me very happy. I tried to keep my distance when we first met because of my status, I still take ARVs every day, but he was still interested despite learning about my status.
Our first date was wonderful and unconventional, we had a porridge date four years ago. I tend to believe that we never really dated, but instead courted. We both knew we wanted to spend life together. So, we moved in together, and became pregnant. We are now partners and parents. We will probably do a wedding when we are settled because this issue of committees and burdening people does not augur well with us.
For fun, I love to watch my favourite series or read a good book and my daughter is picking up on this habit. I also started a hanging herbs garden in her balcony that gives my daughter a lot of joy.
Life was tough but I have no regrets as it has made me the fighter I am today. I have had to fight for the life I want to live, for my dreams, to make it out alive from the life of poverty and to also pull others up as I do.
I know what it means to go to bed hungry, to lack school fees, to be a teen mother with no job. I know what it’s like to have no money to buy medication for your sick baby. I know what it is to lose a child, a business, my self-worth, and friends.
But I know this for sure, that it always gets better if you give it time, and are hopeful and are diligent enough to be prepare for what you are praying for.”