One morning in 1989, as the country trudged with a mysterious health pandemic, Asunta Wagura was called to the principal’s office.
Curt and unapologetic, the principal of the nursing school in Nairobi expelled Asunta from the institution and gave her six months to quit.
Reason? She had tested positive for the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), a sexually transmitted infection that attacks a person’s immunity.
At that time, HIV/Aids was similar to a death sentence. And so in essence, the principal was giving Asunta time to go die in peace away from other students. The principal had even summoned Asunta’s mother to his office as he gave his edict.
In the six months she had been allowed to remain in college, arrangements were made to have her sleep separately from other students lest she infect them with the disease which was then feared.
In her seclusion, she was to use her utensils without sharing with any other student, as well as her bedding and clothing.
“I was secluded and no one wanted to interact with me,” says Asunta in her autobiography; From Heartbreak to Daybreak: My Journey with HIV.
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Prior to this, between 1983 and 1985, some 26 cases of HIV/AIDS had been reported in Kenya. Sex workers mostly in Nairobi were the first group to be affected.
Notably, according to the World Health Organisation, four cases of HIV were reported monthly towards the end of 1986. In 1985, a study had shown a HIV prevalence of 59 per cent amongst a group of sex workers in Nairobi.
At this point, 38 of these cases had been fatal, with a total of 286 cases by the beginning of 1987, prompting the government to respond with a nationwide year-long health and education campaign programme.
In 1994, President Daniel arap Moi declared the Aids epidemic a national disaster after he announced that about 100,000 people had already died from the disease.
To soften the blows of stigma, Asunta started the Kenyan Network of Women with Aids (Kenwa). Through Kenwa, she, together with others began making home visits and providing basic foodstuffs, bed management and care, at one time reaching upwards of 10,000 people.
That was to later, as the millennium came to an end ushering in a new era, turn Asunta into Kenya’s renowned anti-HIV/Aids crusader
Today operating from 20 TASKER Street, St. Catharines Ontario, Canada, Asunta, 34 years after she was condemned by her principal, remains alive and is a busy woman.
Though the mother of five boys - now all adults, and all of whom are HIV-negative - has not only continued with her campaigns against HIV/AIDS but also broadened it, according to her virtual interview with The Sunday Standard.
In August, Asunta spoke in an emotional piece on social media titled ‘From HIV to Happiness: A Journey of Laughter, Love, and Triumphs” after her son Peter, tied the knot.
“Now, you might be thinking, well, that’s a common occurrence, what’s so special about this? Ah, my friends, let me take you back three decades to a time when I was navigating life with HIV,” she said.
She said at one point, she was feeling rebellious and found herself pregnant.
“Who was the father? Well, that’s a story for another day, one that involves intrigue, mystery, and possibly a subplot about forgotten laundry. But I digress. The point is, there I was, a soon-to-be mother with HIV, defying the odds and societal whispers that said I couldn’t do this, that, or the other,” said Asunta.
After delivery, Asunta says her first-born son Peter became her lifeline, the reason to face each day with a mix of determination and composure that only a sleep-deprived parent could muster.
“I embarked on a healing journey, determined to show HIV that it didn’t hold the pen to my life’s script. People continued to chatter, but with Peter by my side, their words turned into the background noise of a cheesy rom-com montage,” says Asunta.
“Now, I won’t lie – raising a child while juggling HIV wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. It was more like trying to balance a dozen flaming torches while riding a unicycle on a tightrope over a pit of lava.
“But Peter was my secret weapon, my adorable sidekick in this wild adventure. He was my walking, talking reminder that impossible is just a word and that sometimes, even when the odds are stacked against you, you can win,” she admits.
Asunta avers that three decades later, Peter and his fiancee Xian exchanged vows, and she couldn’t help but feel like the proudest mama in existence.
“Who was like me? I mean, I’ve danced with a virus and laughed in the face of naysayers. I felt like royalty, or better yet, the ruler of my little kingdom, complete with a castle made of resilience and a moat filled with hope,” she beamed.
Born in Nyeri County, Asunta admits that the journey is not over.
“I’m not delusional; life is still tossing curveballs. But with my son’s wedding as a reminder, I know that victories, big and small, are worth celebrating. Can you believe it? Over 34 years and still counting, and all HIV can do is count its losses. Sorry, HIV, but I’ve been thriving while you’ve been trying,” said Asunta.
While celebrating her birthday in August this year, Asunta disclosed that the same month she was born is the same she got infected.
“I celebrate not one, but two birthdays - the day I was born and the day HIV came into my life and changed everything,” she says.
She says HIV took over her life like an unexpected guest who refused to leave and shattered the dreams and plans she had for her future, leaving her lost and bewildered.
“The world I once knew transformed in ways that were beyond words, and stigma became an unwelcome companion. HIV did not discriminate; it could affect anyone. But what made matters worse was colouring the pandemic with stereotypes,” explains Asunta.
As she reflects on the past, she says it is difficult to believe how courage was born out of the fear that HIV thrust upon her.
“It uncovered potentials I never knew I had, and it forced me to confront life head-on. My (destiny) certainly changed when HIV compelled me to find strength and fight back, one step at a time, one day at a time,” she says.
She confides that HIV may have taken away many things from her, but it also gave her something invaluable - resilience and the courage to stand tall against the storm.
“I celebrate the person I’ve become - a fighter, a survivor, and someone who never gave up on life. HIV taught me to value each moment, to cherish the people I love, and to find joy in the smallest of things. It made me appreciate the beauty of life even amidst its imperfections.”
In a recent letter to HIV, Asunta tells the disease ‘Goodbye, Goodbye for now’. She ‘warns’ the disease that it will ‘disappear’ like ‘corona’.
“So, HIV, enjoy your retirement (or lack thereof). I’m off to embrace life without you. It’s been a long, long time together, but now it’s time for me to shine without your shadow hanging over me,” she writes.
Asunta, however, decries the misuse of HIV funds by some government officials, noting that funds meant to protect these lives are diverted, and adding that it raises questions about financial mismanagement and the ethical fabric of the Kenyan society.
She says such is the case with the misappropriation of HIV/AIDS funding, which carries consequences as grave as murder for patients in dire need of treatment.
“Consider the macabre tale of a cult led by a certain Mackenzie Pastor. This tale ended with the horrific death of many innocent lives who trusted the pastor implicitly. Just as these lives were stolen due to a false belief in a spiritual saviour, so are the lives of many patients suffering from HIV/AIDS stolen when financial saviours, in the form of allocated funds, are misused.”
She says while the connection between the two scenarios might seem far-fetched, when one delves more profoundly, the similarities are alarming. The desecration of trust, the breach of faith, and, most importantly, the unnecessary loss of lives.
She notes that early in the year, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) reported a gross misappropriation of funds by the National AIDS and STIs Control Programme (NASCOP), a Principal Recipient of a grant intended to fight AIDS.
The misappropriation she says comprised overpriced hotel expenditures and double payments to a vendor, adding up to a loss of US$46,940.
In response to the OIG’s Letter of Findings, NASCOP has acknowledged the fraudulent practices and weak internal controls, committing to rectifying the situation.
Says Asunta, “NASCOP has committed to improving. However, it is up to us, as the collective human conscience, to ensure they keep their word and guard against any such future transgressions. The lives of those we could save hang in the balance.”