By Joseph Ngunjiri
NAIROBI,KENYA: Two months after I interviewed Asunta Wagura, upon the release of her autobiography, I saw on TV that she had given birth to twins. It struck me as odd for I did not notice the pregnancy. Then it occurred to me that for the whole time I interviewed her in her office, not once did she wake up from her desk.
“You see when you are 48, you don’t go around saying that you are pregnant,” she says with a smile.
She had kept the pregnancy as private as possible. Her husband however let the cat out of the bag and posted on his Facebook page that Asunta had given birth to twins. “Following the furore that met the birth of my second son Joshua, I decided this one was not going to be public,” she explains.
Asunta is now nursing Gabriel and Baraka, identical twins who were born on April 17. The birth of the twins made news as Asunta has lived with HIV/Aids for more than 23 years now. After going public at the beginning of the millennium,
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Asunta decided she wanted to have a baby. “I had done my research and knew that to prevent mother-to-child infection, I had to use to use a special regime of baby-friendly ARVs, but these ones could not be accessed here in Kenya,” she explains, adding that the company that manufactures them in the US does not export them out of the country.
When she was going for a meeting in Geneva, she asked a friend who was coming from the US to deliver the drugs to her. Before that she had to take drugs to increase her chances of conception. That was for her second son, Joshua.
For her third son, Israel, now going to three, Asunta says she had to use superior technology.
“I visited half the gynaecologists in Nairobi. And I mean it when I say this baby has depleted my bank account and left me with a loan to service,” she writes in her weekly diary. When it came to the twins, Asunta was already an ‘old hand’. It has been baptism by fire for her all through.
As a young college student studying nursing in Nairobi, she was one day summoned to the principal’s office, where the principal, teachers and her mother were waiting for her. The principal went straight to the point; the school was expelling her as she had tested positive to the deadly HIV/Aids and did not have long to live anyway.
The principal gave her six months to leave. That was in 1989. Today, 23 years down the line, the executive director of Kenya Network of Women with Aids (KENWA)Asunta is still alive and going strong. She has braved it all; from stigma to rejection by even close family members.
After being expelled from school, she was assigned her own room, sleeping on rags, with utensils which were not to be shared by other family members, lest she infects them.
She dreamt up many ways of ending her life, but death was not ‘kind’ enough to take her. Then Asunta decided to tell the story of her life.
During last year’s World Aids Day celebrations in Nakuru, Asunta launched her autobiography; From Heartbreak to Daybreak: My Journey with HIV. And just as the title of the book suggests, she takes the reader through the depths of her despair to the present time when she is happily married with five children, all of who are free of Aids.
The other side
Asunta says she wants her readers to know the other side of her life. “When I went public about my status, I was given the name Asunta wa Aids (Asunta of Aids). What people do not know is that I had another life without Aids,” she says. What strikes the reader about the book is the forthrightness with which Asunta tells the story of her life. She does not shy away from recounting issues one might think embarrassing.
When Asunta contracted HIV/Aids, not much was known about the disease. The first Kenyan case had been reported about five years earlier.
Then, what was known about the disease was clothed in ignorance. By the time she came to terms with the disease,she had grown increasingly weary with the way anti-Aids messages, especially the videos, were being packaged.
“According to the videos, HIV/Aids was simply a death sentence that one could do nothing about it…the star characters in the videos had all ended in the grave,” Asunta writes in her book. She resolved to rewrite the messages and turn them to those of hope.
And that is precisely what she has been doing with KENWA; giving women suffering from HIV/Aids hope that they can lead a dignified life even in their last days. The organisation also takes care of children orphaned by the disease. Asunta says that despite increased awareness about the disease, stigma is still prevalent.
“There are some friends of mine, even infected ones, who wouldn’t want to be seen near me in public. They are fearful of what people might say,” she says.
Then there are those who accuse her of pretending to be infected just to get donor funds. She recalls an incident where a director with a government agency cancelled a grant that had been awarded to KENWA, claiming that she was not infected. “He told me that for someone living with Aids I had lived for ‘too long’,” she says.
With time, Asunta has learnt to see the funny side of being HIV infected and even laughs about it. She also has a sense of drama, like the time she placed an advert in the papers looking for a husband. One only needs to read the book to see how it went down. Asunta was not in a hurry to tell her story.
She only prioritised it when she was involved in a road accident in October last year with her husband and two other friends. “After the accident I realised that I could have died without having told my life story,” she said. And Asunta has a way with words, with a generous doses of gallows humour. Hers is instead a calm acceptance of the reality and a steely resolve to overcome the debilitating odds. “I was completely detached as I was writing the book. It is only when I was revising the manuscript that I got emotional when I came across certain chapters and I thought that life had dealt me a really unfair card.”
Asunta, who had an on-and-off relationship with members of her family says news of her book did not go down well with some family members. “They warned me against writing ‘bad’ things about them, but there was no way I could embellish the truth just to please them,” she says. Some are threatening to sue her. “Let them go ahead I will meet them in court,” says Asunta.