Twenty-year-old John Kyalo was brought up by a single mother who was determined to help him wade through the snares of slum life. However, fate caught up with him even before he was out of his teenage years. He shares his experience of contracting a dreaded disease with MWAURA MUIGANA.
“My mother, Margaret Wanza, was open with me from a very early age. She talked to me about age appropriate issues including sex, sexually transmitted infections (STI) and drug abuse.
When I entered adolescence, she constantly cautioned me against engaging in pre-mature sex and the risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections. These are common issues that affect children and youth in Kibera slums where we live, and she warned me against falling into the trap.
In spite of these vital lessons, when I sat KCPE in 2010, I felt some newfound freedom. I overlooked everything and joined the euphoria of merry-making and feeling grown up. My first sexual experience was with my then girlfriend who also lived with her family in Kibera slums.
As soon as we had sex I was overwhelmed with regret. Mum noticed something was amiss with me. She persuaded me to open up to her about any issue troubling me. When I
came clean, she was very disappointed. She offered to take me to hospital for a check-up to confirm I had not contracted an STI.
Prior to the hospital check-up, I joined a group of youth from Kibera at the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) Kibera Health Centre for training on sex education, drug abuse and other health-related issues. The climax was a voluntary HIV test to help one know his status. After the test, I was given a sealed note to take to my mother.
Learning of my HIV status…
The following day mum asked me to accompany her to the centre where a second test was done. I proceeded home while mum was asked to remain behind.
When she came home in the evening, she cheered me up then very tactfully broke the news of my HIV status. She assured me that the virus will not be in control of my life if I chose to live a healthy lifestyle.
She further urged me to make use of the Kibera Healthy Centre, which among other things provides lifesaving HIV treatment, care, nutritious food, support services, and love to children and families affected by HIV.
Still, I couldn’t believe I was HIV positive. I was aware of the rejection and stigma directed at HIV positive pupils, teachers and other people within the Kibera community.
It was beyond my young mind to bear such rejection. I became withdrawn. I would
cry behind closed doors, hardly ate and neglected myself. It was as if an HIV positive tag was pinned on me for all to see.
It pained me to feel different from my peers. I regretted engaging in unprotected sex and couldn’t seem to think or concentrate on anything else.
The more I relived the mistake of having unprotected sex, the more it appeared unforgivable and incurable.
My world had suddenly crumbled and imminent death was the uppermost thought on mind. Like all newly HIV-infected people, I kept running away from my friends while all the time thinking they were running away from me.
Whenever they talked generally about HIV&Aids, I suffered from a guilt conscience and assumed I was the focus of their discussion.
I harboured bitterness at my girlfriend for deliberately infecting me. I cut off any communication with her.
Her family, who were already aware of her HIV status, felt sorry for me when they learnt that I had contracted the virus.
Perhaps to avoid any confrontation, they sent her away to study and live in Marsabit. Years later when I was past the stigma, I forgave her.
Mum was very worried about me and she sought help from the Kibera Health Centre who sent an 18-year-old HIV positive girl to share her testimony with me and encourage me to live positively irrespective of my circumstance.
She walked me through her journey from the day she tested HIV positive, the different stages of emotions she went through, how she got help and finally accepted her status and moved on with life.
Physically she looked healthy with no telltale signs. After several sessions with her, I was convinced I could pull through too. The initial shock dissipated.
With the help of two professional counsellors and a doctor at the Centre, I learnt to accept my status and live positively with HIV.
I understood that protecting my immune system to maintain overall health was of great importance. This equips the body to fight off viruses and other types of infections.
Medication as prescribed by the doctor is important too since skipping even one dose of medication can give the virus an opportunity to become resistant to the drugs, rendering them ineffective.
The counseling sessions were followed up with phone calls night and day to encourage me to take it in my stride. The centre also provided me with antiretroviral (ARV) drugs and other services and still provide me with these to this day.
Stigmatised in school…
When I joined form one, I was keen to conceal my HIV status from not only my schoolmates but also the school administration. And so I had to invent lies to be allowed to leave the school compound and to pick my drugs from the centre.
Often my requests were turned down for lack of sufficient reasons, but somehow I would manage to get out of school and get a refill of my medication.
I was afraid of disclosing my status to the administration for fear of being stigmatised. Eventually, some students got curious about the drugs I was taking and the truth came out. The rejection and stigma that I suffered was unbearable.
I used the school’s poor academic performance in a bid to convince mum to transfer me to another secondary school. Eventually she gave in and I transferred to another school. Since no one knew of my HIV status in the new school, I was able to concentrate in my studies.
Undoubtedly, there is no simple answer on how to deal with the stigma. But the first step is always to seek support from people who understand what you are going through.
And so when the AMREF centre introduced me to support groups of adolescents living with HIV, I was thrilled. In the group, we share our experiences and encourage one another.
This is very therapeutic and it lessens the loneliness and fear and HIV positive person goes through. We meet during school holidays and exchange experiences from our various encounters as well as brainstorm on ways to fight stigma within our communities.
Making a difference…
I am forever indebted to AMREF for organising forums for HIV positive youth to share their different experiences, encourage and build each other up, particularly over school holidays.
The organisation holds official events that bring youth living with HIV to learn how to manage their status. Through these forums I managed to conquer stigma and stop concealing my HIV status.
In 2012, I began volunteering as a facilitator for HIV positive students including those who go through the AMREF programme.
One important lesson I have learnt is not to spread the virus to others. My advice to other youths in similar situations is to take their medication, live a positive life and achieve their dreams. Don’t wait for others to build your dreams for you just because you are HIV positive.
I am an actor, a musician and scriptwriter and hope to hone my skills by going through training in mass communication with a bias on video production.
I have brought together a group of 12 youths who are mainly students to form Kibera Vision Achievers. The objective is to produce a video highlighting and giving solutions to ills such as drug abuse, HIV&Aids, crime and other antisocial evils that the youths face.
In the meantime Kibera Vision Achievers helps inform people about HIV&Aids through drama on the streets, in schools and during community forums like barazas.
After acting, we address the gathering about HIV&Aids and drug abuse among other issues. The idea is to support and encourage the youth to do positive things with their life because crime never pays.
My mum has remained my greatest pillar of strength. When some adolescents in our support group tell of the rejection and stigma they face from their families, I just thank God for giving me such a loving and devoted mother. I don’t know how I could have managed without her.”