When Okoth* was diagnosed with HIV, his wife Auma* and their four children were left in shock. While Auma’s results returned negative, her relief was coupled with anxiety for her husband’s diagnosis. The once vibrant man and provider for the family became angry, refusing to eat or take his medication. Okoth soon passed away, leaving behind a devastated young family.
Sadly, this is a situation too many families are familiar with.
According to the World Health Organisation “the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) targets the immune system and weakens people's surveillance and defence systems against infections and some types of cancer”. Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is the most advanced stage of HIV.
In 2013, there were an estimated 35 million people living with HIV around the world. Sub-Saharan Africa is the most affected region which includes Kenya, where Auma and her family live.
A devastating discovery
The cries of her hungry, young children added to Auma’s grief. She was widowed and unemployed; how would she pick up the pieces of her broken family? Barely a year after her husband’s death, Auma was falling sick often and began worrying that she would have the same disease that took the life of her husband.
“I battled one infection after another,” she says.
“My waning health prompted unsettling thoughts. What if I have it? What if I am HIV positive?”
Terrified of what doctors might discover, Auma chose to self-medicate and sailed through every episode of illness. But each time she became unwell, it was be worse than before and her weight steadily declined.
Staff at the local Compassion centre her daughter, Awour*, attended became concerned by Auma’s health and encouraged her to visit a hospital for treatment. Auma reluctantly agreed and she and her children were tested for HIV. When the results came back her sons were cleared, but Auma and Awour were both diagnosed with HIV. Auma was consumed with guilt. She blamed herself for Awour’s illness after having a home birth.
“I had many problems during my pregnancy with Awour and I almost miscarried,” says Auma.
“I was so tired of the many visits to the hospital that I decided to deliver at home when I went into labour. Looking back, I wish I had delivered in hospital, because she might have been fine.”
With medical advances and an improved knowledge of HIV, if Auma had gone to hospital doctors may have been able to protect Awour from contracting the virus during the birth.
Auma’s health deteriorated and she was admitted to hospital for two weeks. During this time, Awour also became unwell. Along with the sores, diarrhoea, vomiting and pneumonia, Auma and Awour suffered discrimination from friends and relatives who were convinced that Auma would suffer the same fate as her husband.
“Many people feel that people living with HIV should be quarantined and not allowed to participate in communal activities,” says Fred, a Compassion staff member.
“Others feel that antiretroviral treatments (ART) encourage promiscuity and hence the spread of the disease since the drugs make patients look ‘normal’.”
But Auma wasn’t going to give up. She needed to be strong for her family, especially Awour. She joined a HIV-support group at Awour’s Compassion centre where she met other parents who shared their stories. The group provides practical assistance such as nutritional support to complement medications and a savings and loan program to start up a small business. Most importantly, Auma has finally found acceptance and comfort.
“I feel loved and appreciated,” says Auma.
“I feel ‘normal’ again and determined to live a long life for my children, as opposed to the fear of dying quickly.”
Teachers at the child development centre are also a great support for Awour, and other children living with HIV.
“Already, 22 of our children [out of 345] are HIV positive and regularly meet to share their experiences,” says Fred.
“We also organise inter-project get-togethers to help children see that they are not alone.”
One day at a time
While Auma and Awour have side effects from the medication, their health has greatly improved and the family is stronger than ever.
“I’m so glad to be where we are now, because [without Compassion’s help] we would be dead,” says Auma.
“The love and care has sustained us. We count this life as a blessing.”
*Names have been changed.
Words by Silas Irungu, Fred Obonyo and Amy Millar
Photos by Silas Irungu