Born and raised in a family of five, 27-year-old Doreen Moraa Moracha was born HIV positive by a discordant couple (positive mother and negative father). It took many years for her to know about her condition even though her parents were aware of it.
Her mother had lost hope of her daughter making it in life and misguided advice from relatives and friends made the situation even worse. Some even advised her to take Doreen to a children’s home so as not to see her suffer. Good thing is, her mother’s love superseded everything else and she took care of her daughter.
“When I was 13 years old, a doctor told me out-rightly that I was HIV positive and that I had gotten it from my mother. He also warned me not to share the information with anyone,” she recalls.
She received the news with both shock and pain and a pinch of betrayal, too. She was too stunned to speak and it took some time for her to process the news and for it to sink in. There was no one she could turn to and she therefore wallowed in self-pity.
“The reality finally hit home when I was put under antiretroviral drugs (ARVs). I was informed that I had to take the drugs every single day of my life,” she explains.
Life, as she knew it, had turned on its head. Taking the ARVs, for one, was a bitter pill to swallow (pun intended).
Stigma against the condition was still rife then so she had to take the medicine while hiding. While she always aspired to go to boarding school, such an arrangement would jeopardise her well-kept secret and she thus had to forego the idea.
“There were times my body reacted badly to the drugs, especially during the initial stages, and during such days I had to skip school. This affected my academic performance. The revelation that I was living with the condition was, in itself, life shattering. My grades took a tumble and I had to repeat classes,” she shares.
A spanner in the works
Slowly but surely, Doreen found ways to cope. The 2007/2008 post-election skirmishes disrupted their lives as they had to relocate from their home in Bomet to Machakos.
“We couldn’t find a good day school in our neighbourhood and I had no option but join a boarding school,” she narrates.
This distressed Doreen so much for she knew her little secret would be out now.
However, both her and parents were determined to keep her health situation private and therefore did not reveal it to the school administration.
“But we could only hide it for so long. My mother used to sneak in the drugs to me regularly in the pretense of paying school fees. Of course, with time, this raised eyebrows but no one was bold enough to enquire. Secondly, she would sneak in food for me, which was against school rules and when this was discovered, we had to let the cat out of the bag,” she offers.
They informed the principal who was kind enough to keep the news to herself so as to not only jeopardise Doreen’s reputation, but also not to cause alarm. What’s more, Doreen was in her last year of school and it was just a matter of time before she cleared.
Breaking down from within
Unbeknown to Doreen and those close to her, putting up a brave face was a facade. She had not resolved the deep-seated animosity that she carried within her and it was just a matter of when, and not if, her past would catch up with her. That time came in 2011 and she totally lost it.
“I became a recluse, stopped using the drugs even as endless questions ran through my mind. I questioned God on why it had to me. My siblings were born without the virus. I foresaw no future for me and it is surprising that I didn’t attempt to take my life,” Doreen says.
It was around the same time that the infamous Babu wa Loliondo who claimed he could heal a myriad of diseases was riding high on his traditional drugs. She decided to try her luck.
“My mum took a loan and we set off for Tanzania,” she explains. On arrival and after explaining the purpose of their journey to the ‘healer’, she was given a cup of the medicine and they returned to Nairobi with high hopes that she was finally cured of the scourge.
She needed affirmation from the doctors that indeed she was healed. “When I went for tests, it was discovered that my viral load (amount of HIV genetic material) had increased to 200,000 which was deemed very dangerous. I had to go back to taking ARVs if I was to live,” she offers.
She was back to square one.
With time, it became apparent to people around her that she was living with the virus. The news spread like wild fire and with it came stigma from even her closest relatives.
“Whenever I visited relatives or even attended a function, the utensils I used for eating would be thrown away thereafter. Some relatives served me with disposable utensils,” she explains and it is clear that she is still hurting from the discrimination.
She calls to mind an incident where she was scolded for using a cup, which wasn’t meant for her. “I was thereafter accused of trying to kill that family,” she says.
Coming of age
When it comes to dating, Doreen makes a point of revealing her status during the first date. Many a times, she never gets to hear again from the men who were previously worshipping the ground she walked on.
In 2015, inspired by a story from a woman in Kibera, Doreen decided to go public with her condition. Texts of disbelief followed leading her to deactivate her Facebook account for a while. However, she had left her email at the end of the post. People came with different revelation about their status. Negative and positive comments flowed to her email too, with some asking her out for a date as they were also living with HIV.
From her email, she recalls one guy confessing being married to a lady who doesn’t know his status. He went further to reveal that he secretly takes ARVs.
“This is not uncommon as it happens in many families and relationships. Most people do not come out to say their status for fear of stigma,” she states.
After living with the condition for all these years, she is convinced that HIV is not a death sentence. She has gotten used to taking her medicine religiously and has a word of advice to those in the same shoes as hers after she tried a new drug.
“I tried a different brand of the ARVs I was taking and my body didn’t take kindly to the change. I suffered from migraines, nausea and inability to move. So stick to the drugs you are used to lest your body reacts to the new drugs. Only change if it is mandatory and with the advice of a doctor,” she advises.
Since coming out in 2015, more and more people continue reaching out to her. Because of this she started the ‘I am a beautiful story’ initiative to empower and encourage people living with HIV.
Through ‘I am a beautiful story’, she visits high schools and colleges to share her story and sensitise people about HIV. She also uses her social media platforms and especially Twitter to create awareness on the diseases as well as share her experience in a bid to encourage someone.
Doreen was recently nominated for Beijing +25 Youth Task Force by the United Nations Women. One of the task force’s agendas is to advocate for reducing number of women being infected by HIV. It also encourages women to negotiate for safe sex.
“I am a testament of someone who has faced hard times to an extent of giving up but emerged stronger,” she concludes with a smile.