It isn’t every day that you get to meet someone who’s done something for so many just by being courageous and open. Wagura is such a person. When Asunta started raising people’s awareness about HIV, few were willing to talk about it; many were scared. Apart from advocacy, she is the Executive Director of the Kenya Network of Women Living with Aids (KENWA) and a mother of three wonderful adopted boys.
Here is her story, in her own words, as told to Malowa Oduol
I’m 45 years old, a mother of three handsome boys. The most remarkable title that I answer to is “mum”!
However many people call me by the impersonal name Asunta of AIDS or Asunta/ Aids, though Aids is just a small component of who I am. In life I am a go-getter who rarely takes no for an answer. I am very simple, accessible and flexible; I can fit in anywhere, I can live anywhere. Simple things add flavour to my life, like strapping my baby on my back and taking a stroll in the estate. That’s what I enjoy most… quality time with my family.
I grew up in a small, remote village, Kihuyo, in the vicinity of the famous Muhoya’s Hill. My parents became coffee farm squatters, offering labour in exchange for food. However my dad ensured I went to school, which was located about 3 km away. Attending school involved taking a packed lunch and sometimes, when we didn’t have anything to pack; we carried an small empty basket and a bottle of water, to pretend we had food to fool the strict headmaster, who insisted that every child brought lunch, even though some of us could not afford it. Sometimes I found myself at home because my parents owed KSh 2 school fees arrears.
I wanted to study to get off the coffee farms. I hated the farms, the coffee and the vicious cycle of girls falling pregnant, then marrying men from the farm. The same happened to these girls’ children. I worked hard and was always top of my class. Little did I know HIV was waiting for me on my exit from poverty. Little did I know that I was entering an even more challenging world, one dominated by a socially unacceptable disease associated with prostitution – even though I had only known one boyfriend whom I believed was perfect in my life! He didn’t look like he had an STD, and I had only dated one person.
What I miss most from my childhood is the games we played! One memorable moment is the time we went to steal the muvia’s (muvia is missionary in Kikuyu) oranges from their orchard and being caught. We confessed and accused one another for igniting the desire for oranges. Muvia threatened us and pretended to take us to the police, saying that not only would we be jailed but we would not go to heaven! Kneeling, we beseeched him, saying, “We will never steal again!” we begged him to pardon us.
We received forgiveness, finally, and on our way to freedom one girl, Peninah, remembered the priest did not clarify if we would go to heaven now that the earthly sin had been pardoned. We went back to ask him, “Father, Nitugathie matu-ini (Father, shall we go to heaven?)”, and he laughed. To date, we remember it with amusement!
I enjoyed sliding on wet, slippery red soil, my clothes getting worn out. This game was not looked upon kindly by our parents, particularly because we were girls and girls should never play in this way!
After A-level I enrolled at the medical school. This is where all my dreams were shattered, after a general check-up all students had to submit to. It was a Monday morning and we were going to do a human anatomy test but some sixth sense kept telling me “Today is bad day!” I ignored it, thinking it was fear about passing the test. I heard soft footsteps approaching the door of the classroom where we were sitting for our exam. Softly, the tutor told me to hand in my paper and go to the principal’s office.
Without taking the time to prepare me, or counsel me as they do these days, the principal said, “Asunta, I’m sorry you have AIDS.” I didn’t hear the rest as I went blank for a complete 20 seconds or so, and when I came to myself, she continued, “and now that you are dying we cannot continue keeping you here and that’s why we invited your mother to come and take you home for you last days.”
Sure enough, my mother was seated next to me and I longed for that time when I was small and she would hold me close and tell me, “It will be alright!” She looked distant. One tutor explained to her in Kiswahili that I had contracted a prostitutes’ disease and I had very short time to live before I died. I pitied my mother and I thought she was the most unfortunate woman living on earth!
As I reached the door the principal called me back. I guess she felt she had completely crushed my dreams, plans, character, faith, future, and my today! Even my rather unhappy past appeared preferable to the unfolding reality. She called me back and said, “I don’t mean you are going to die immediately, you may live for some time – in fact you may live for up to six months!” I asked myself, “What is six months?” I had dreamt about completing school, starting a good career, redeeming my family from poverty, getting married, having a beautiful wedding and ensuring my children lead good, comfortable, quiet lives. What could I do in six months?
That day remains very vivid in my mind; even though it has been 24 years! My own family’s attitude towards me changed. I was given my own set of utensils that were not to be used by anyone else; I had my own room that no-one else could enter. I wondered when I would die, to relieve my family of this inconvenience, but time passed and it did not happen.
Today, more than 24 years later, I’m still around; courtesy of God’s grace and ARV (antiretroviral) medication!
Everyone including my own family thought, “There goes the prostitute!” I decided I had to go public and tell people that this disease is not for prostitutes because I was not a prostitute, even though I was infected. I didn’t choose it! It could happen to anyone, just anyone!
I draw my strength from the fact that God created each one of us in his own image; I’m not worth less than anyone. HIV does not mean I’m created in the “image” of a virus! God’s plan for my life was not altered because of this virus. I have courage, because my life is not a rehearsal. And according to Charles Darwin, survival is for the fittest — read strongest — and not the weakest. I feel I must live a fulfilled life like anyone else, without regrets or apologies or explanations to justify failure! I have a right to be here.
I started writing to educate people and to contribute towards reducing the stigma people living with HIV/AIDS were exposed to. In the beginning I wanted to hide, but I reasoned even if I hid in the crowd, I still would not fit in, because deep within I knew I was not like the crowd. I had to deal with the stigma; I had to find support through the formation of a group of people who could identify with me. This is how I ended up founding KENWA.
One memorable moment of KENWA is the time everyone thought a 15-year-old girl, Eva, who weighed less than 10 kg, was going to die because of HIV and AIDS. She was put on ARVs, a balanced diet and physiotherapy and she improved every day! Now she is in high school. I could not believe it when we bought a metal trunk for Eva to go to Form One. She wants to be a doctor.
I’m happy that this child got another chance in life because of the programmes I initiated. My duties at work include providing policy direction to KENWA, fundraising, managing public relations and ensuring we remain focussed on the mission of KENWA of improving the quality of the lives of people living with AIDS. This is done through support, treatment, counselling, group therapy and economic empowerment. For example, we currently have a revolving fund where our members can make soft loans.
My mission is to repair broken hearts. Among the role models I look up to are Mary Fisher, an American AIDS activist who has lived with HIV for over twenty years; Ngugi wa Thiongo, who teaches me how to look at things and express my views on issues explicitly, including sensitive ones! When I wanted another baby, I received a lot of criticism from the media but they didn’t change my focus and I did it successfully! Mother Teresa taught me humility – though I know I am very far from what she was.
The best part of my day is attending to clients who have reached the end of their tether and, after we have spoken,
they leave my office smiling, not because they now have all the answers, but because they know someone cares and they are the drivers of their own lives. When I have a bad day I take a walk alone and sit down where I can meditate for up to two hours. I “discuss”- with myself- why I am sad and I make a list of the causes of my feelings. I consider worst-case scenarios and best-case scenarios and then I strategise on how to pull myself out of the sadness. I always tell myself it’s not so bad! It may be bad but that does not define where I am going! I also play loud gospel or country music as this soothes my soul. Sometimes I visit friends who make me laugh at their idle talk, or we catch up with gossip.
I have adopted three children. One is studying abroad while two are studying locally. This is on a personal level, not part of the organisation. At the end of the day, we all have a role to play in the fight against HIV/AIDS, but sometimes we blame others for not doing enough while we are doing nothing ourselves. We can offer support to the infected, we can educate, we can sing, we can write… least of all we should all get tested!”
# Fighting Ignorance
KENWA is an NGO started in 1993 to create a forum where we as infected women can educate people. Since then Asunta says a lot has changed, “HIV/AIDS perception has changed in that the stigma has reduced significantly and people have come to appreciate they can live with and support people who are infected without getting infected themselves,” explains Wagura.
One of the most important aspects of the fight against HIV infection is getting tested and talking about the disease.
“Parents should start talking about sex to their children when they start asking inquisitive questions. If they brush away the questions, the children will still get answers, but not the way the parents would have preferred. Children trust and value their parents highly. A parent remains the point of reference even when the child has grown into an adult!”
# Small Actions = Big Difference
KENWA is a community-based organisation that works with disadvantaged groups. It provides Voluntary Counselling and Testing (VCT) services and counselling and emergency services to those in need and also helps its members find means of livelihood. It now has over 10,000 members.
“While initially KENWA’s focus was on health, we need to move to the next level of sustaining our programmes by having members that can earn a livelihood,” explains Wagura.
“Finding financing for job creation is difficult, as some financiers will not finance people who are infected with HIV. The needs and demands of our members exceed KENWA’s capacity.”
The organisation is currently running the One Coffee Campaign, where sponsors can help feed orphans by donating as little as KSh 240 (USD 3).
Visit www.kenwa.org for more information, or call +254 208 566 366. People can also make a difference by volunteering. However, the first thing to do is to get tested!