Like a phoenix, she rises

Former UN Secretary-General Ban Kimoon (left) with Rebecca Awiti and her three children at a World AIDS Day event. [Courtesy]
Rebecca Awiti has lived through a life of tragedies, but she will not let brokenness and darkness shroud her life. By CHRISTINE ODEPH

A little smile plays on her lips as she greets me with an uncertain handshake and a furrowed brow. She has a deep earth skin tone and moves gracefully. As we make our way to the office where we will conduct the interview, she remains quiet.

She takes a seat and watches me as I ready to take notes. The silence is a little awkward, and figuring that she is not one for small talk, we get right to it.   

After high school in 1993, as she waited to join college in Kisumu, Rebecca Awiti fell under the spell of a charming teacher and neighbour named Amisi. He became her first boyfriend.

“After being in the relationship for a while, and long after we’d become intimate, I noticed that he had a prominent scar on his arm and over the left side of his body,” Rebecca narrates, “ So I asked him what had caused it. He casually said that he had been very sick in college and had been hospitalised several times. He added that he had suspected then that he was HIV positive, but upon recovering fast, he dismissed the thought.”  

Alarm bells went off in her mind, but in that innocent glow of young love, she didn’t pay any mind to it. He looked healthy after all. Shortly after, she joined college. Amisi wanted them to get married but she insisted on completing her studies first. In college, things cooled off between them and he married someone else.

“I became involved with the Christian Union chairman in college and we decided to hold off on intimacy till after marriage; something I remain happy about. I finished college and moved to Nairobi to live with my sister as I looked for work. My boyfriend came to Nairobi too to pursue a theology course. He persuaded me to enroll for the course too.”

The year was 2002. The then 27-year-old Rebecca had her life mapped out ahead of her. She was in love with her college sweetheart; a wonderful, religious man. They looked forward to getting married to one another and serving God in ministry.

One of the prerequisites for admission to the theology course was taking an HIV test. Both excited and naïve, Rebecca booked her appointment at Mbagathi hospital. To her, it was just a formality. She thought nothing of her first boyfriend from six years earlier with his strange scar and offhand answers about his prolonged sicknesses.

The big reveal

Two weeks after her test, Rebecca was back at the hospital waiting area, knitting as she patiently waited for her name to be called out.

“One by one the nurses started coming out of a room to stare at me, whispering to each other and then returning to their stations. Finally, a male nurse called me,” she says.

“He asked me if I remembered what I had come to collect, and whether I was ready for my results and I said yes I did. He then handed me a document with my name and the words HIV Positive.”

“My mind went blank. For some reason I remembered how in the 90s the government would ran media adverts warning people against HIV. The Kiswahili jingles would always stress that only adulterers and ‘worldly’ people got HIV. It was not a disease that normal, faithful women who stayed in one relationship at a time like me could get. Yet here I was, holding a paper that said I had the ‘adulterers’ disease’.

“Now, the biggest problem you will be facing is a lot of itching in your private parts so be ready for that,” said the nurse as she walked out.

She walked from Mbagathi hospital to the central business district in a daze before heading home. Her fiancé called, eager for her negative results to complete her theology application. 

“When he asked what the results were, I told him to come see me.”

Inevitably, the relationship died.

Life after diagnosis

To help come to terms with her diagnosis, Rebecca sought out support groups for other women living with HIV and discovered Women Fighting AIDS in Kenya (WOFAK).

“That was the first time I received proper and ethical counselling. I would attend weekly support groups. I looked forward to that day because it was the only time I felt loved and supported. In time, the organisation also took me in as an office assistant. They saw my potential, and I was promoted in 2003 as a home based care assistant at the Kayole branch.”

At the time Rebecca’s CD4 count was still high (more than 1,000). “Very few people were on ARVs. You needed a donor to sponsor your drugs and they were only available in specific hospitals. To be put on ARVs, your CD4 count had to be lower than 200.”

Chance encounter with Amisi

During a routine visit to the local mama mboga in Kayole where she lived, Rebecca ran into her former boyfriend Amisi in what she describes as a movie-like coincidence. He was working while undertaking post-graduate studies at a local university.

He lived just one block away from her house and invited her to visit him. Amisi claimed he had permanently separated from his wife with whom he had one child.

“He already knew my HIV status so he didn’t even flinch when I asked him to get tested with me. After all he knew he was the one who infected me.” Gradually a new relationship formed between them and they got married in 2004.

“I didn’t want to die without leaving a generation behind. So we began trying for a baby.” After a consultation with doctors and a change in nutrition and lifestyle changes for the couple, she conceived.

Miracle quadruplets and heinous culture

She began taking anti-retroviral drugs under doctor’s supervision and in September 2005 she gave birth to quadruplets (two girls and two boys) and all of them were HIV negative. Unfortunately one boy died after a week due to an underdeveloped lung.

Shortly afterwards, issues began coming up between the woman and her laws. „My husband also became violent and abusive towards me.”

To further compound the issue, Amisi started falling sick between 2005 and 2006. “He wasn’t diligent at taking ARV drugs and would turn aggressive when I reminded him to take them. Repeatedly, he was hospitalised due to pneumonia and developed cancer of the leg.” 

“Both my father and husband at one point were admitted at Kenyatta hospital. I lost my dad to prostate cancer. None of my in-laws attended the funeral so I went upcountry alone. My brother in law and mother in law went to my house in Nairobi while I was gone as my husband was discharged. When I came back all hell broke loose.”

Her in-laws claimed that Rebecca had ‘abandoned their son and left him to die. “They started viciously beating me and then they locked me out of my own house.” They would not let her see her one-year-old triplets.

For two weeks, Rebecca slept at a neighbour’s house, wearing the same dress and rubber slippers while going to the Kayole chief’s camp seeking justice daily.

Finally the tide turned for her. Through an influential friend, the Kayole DO office released two policemen who escorted her to the house. She took her children, a few basic items and the house girl who was also being held hostage. Her friend facilitated her to move into another house. After some conflict involving property, Rebecca decided to sever all contact with her husband and in-laws. Amisi died in 2007.

A new lease on life

Rebecca’s triplets will turn 13 this year. Since her employment with WOFAK ended in 2012, she has only survived on volunteer work. “It has been a struggle, especially with no regular source of income. Any coin I get goes into raising my children. ”

Rebecca says she has been denied jobs because of her status. “One time I was subjected to a medical test to join a security firm. Although I qualified, the supervisors called me to laughingly tell me that I would not get posted because of the test results. Since then I try to find work within HIV related organisations to avoid such frustration.”

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Rebecca AwitiWorld AIDS DayFormer UN Secretary-General Ban Kimoon