Phenny Awiti loves food. Even as we sit for a chat some minutes to 1pm, she is thinking aloud of what she wants to have for lunch.
“I cannot have ugali. It will take a lot of time to prepare. I am thinking githeri, well fried with avocado,” she says and we both burst into llaughter.
Phenny’s bubbly life and infectious laughter cannot be ignored. While her small stature can mistake her as a 20-year-old, she is actually a mother of two and nothing about her screams that she is HIV positive.
“I have a simple motto; it is never that serious. I am not saying this because I am funny. We have other serious diseases like cancer to talk about and not really HIV,” she says.
So when she confessed to her best friend in high school ten years ago of her status, it came out as a joke, but she was serious.
It is her love for food that led to the 26-year-old discovering her HIV status. She was 16 years old then, and a Form Two at Asumbi Girls High School.
A certain organisation, she says, visited her school to rally them to donate blood in second term. Since she loved food, she could not miss the ration of a soda and few pieces of biscuits terming it as just a survival tactic in school.
The exercise went well, and she even knew her blood type.
Then in third term, another organisation came.
“This time round they were giving a full loaf of bread. I did not really want to donate blood but I could not miss the bread,” she says chocking in laughter.
It is in this second instance that she was pulled aside. The attendant went ahead to question her.
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“Have you ever tested for HIV?”
At the back of her mind, she says, she just wanted the attendant to get over with it so that she can go and have her soda and bread.
Five minutes later after, she was asked to interpret the kit. There were two strips. The test came out positive.
“It was shocking. I do not even know how the soda and bread dropped from my hands when I walked out,” she says. She never ate it.
That was the turn around. The bubbly 16-year-old who loved jokes and found it hard to keep a straight face on serious matters, became demoralised in almost everything, including her studies. So when she got a C minus in her final exam, she was not surprised at all.
To her, there was no longer need to wake up at 5am or sleep at 11pm studying for a future that was not guaranteed. “I even thought the test results were a lie because it was taken once. May be if I took another it may turn different.”
The first person she confided to was her best friend, whom she shared both secret and material things with. But days later, as she stood in the queue to serve her favourite-githeri-she saw some girls pointing fingers at her.
She knew the news was already out, and went to confront the friend, a bad idea it was.
“But she said you know what, just give me my blanket and anything you have that is mine. I do not want to be infected,” she recalls.
It is at this moment that she sought to confess to the school counsellor, who was very accommodating. Her sister was then called, and she declared her status, in presence of the counsellors, just in case she overreacted.
“Imagine she was not shocked. She said that was something no one had the courage to tell me. I was actually born with it,” she says.
It is then she dawned on her that her mother died in 2002, while she was five and her dad when she was ten. “I used to be sickly but it was normal to me that children my age then fell sick.”
That same third term, she was introduced to antiretroviral therapy drugs. These are drugs taken every day to boost one’s immunity. If taken religiously-without defaulting-some patients have their viral load almost undetectable that they may even test HIV negative after some time though they still have the virus.
It is through this that HIV positive women, like Phenny, are able to have children since when the viral load is undetectable, one cannot infect others, and can breastfeed. This is how Phenny was able to give birth to her two daughters-one in 2014 and the other whom she conceived just five months later.
The two children, who are both HIV negative, were put on treatment and monitored for 18 months to ensure they were not infected as they were being breast fed.
It was however not easy finding a partner, she says, as most men though she was playing hard to get when she told them she is positive.
To them, she says, they expected an emaciated person with their eyes popping out and cracked red lips, too weak to even breath just left with few months, if not days to live as the ideal image of person living positively.
But her flawless skin, glowing eyes, and radiant smile say otherwise. Her former partner had no issue with her being positive even though he was negative.
“I remember last year I went for an interview at a radio station and I was made to take the test once again just as proof,” she says. “For HIV you just need Sh20 to register and have access to drugs for free.”
As I leave her to go find her githeri, I wondered if she still keep in touch with her high school friend. She laughs it off.
"We chat all the time, we are both mothers. What was I doing anyway confiding in her? She was too young to handle the news then. That is why I later chose to be a counsellor," she says.