HIV Aids in Kenya: A life story that appeared in a local daily this week has left many Kenyans puzzled at the lengths some people will go to stay with the persons they love. According to the story, a Rosemary (name changed to protect identity) hid her HIV positive status to her HIV negative husband, James, for ten years! During this period, she continuously had unprotected sex with him. Ms. Rosemary also hid the fact that she was a cocaine addict. Here is the story as published by Stella Cherono in the Daily Nation weekly pullout ‘Healthy Nation’:
“The day was June 3, 2017. A cold Nairobi Saturday. Her husband, James, was at home, and in the evening Rosemary sweet-talked him into a warm, cosy romantic conversation. At 10pm, as the rest of Nairobi prepared to retire to bed, she dropped the bomb.
For as long as she shall live, Rosemary will never forget the look on her husband’s face when she told him she had hidden her HIV status from him for 10 years. Where she had expected a violent reaction — and had even prepared for it — James remained immobile for a few seconds, letting the gravity of what his wife had just told him sink in.
And then, to Rosemary’s shock, he reached out to her, his arms extended in an embracing curve, and gave her the deepest, warmest, longest, tightest hug of her life.
“It lasted a whole 127 minutes!,” she says, her body slightly stiffening at the memory of the moment. “And then the tears started flowing.”
Rosemary and James’s story starts in 2002, when they met at Majango Secondary School in Rarieda. It was love at first sight, they agree, fuelled at the time by the raging hormones of youth and the adrenalin of stolen kisses.
James was in Form Three when the young, dashing Rosemary reported for Form One. She had delayed joining high school for lack of school fees as she is an orphan who at the time depended on a guardian for survival.
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James stepped in to help, buying her an old tin lamp and every now and then giving his girl Sh30 to buy paraffin so she could study in the evening back at home.
The next year, in 2003, James completed his secondary education and moved to Nairobi to join Vision Institute of Professional Studies, where he studied accounting. Rosemary, on the other hand, dropped out of school for lack of school fees.
“My mother had died in 1993 when I was in Standard Three and I was left under the care of my relatives. I kept moving from home to home and had never met my father. I only knew his name and did not know where to find him,” Rosemary says.
And then, in 1999, a relative traced Rosemary’s father to Nairobi, where he worked at a local brewery. Rosemary moved to Nairobi to live with him and was enrolled at SSD Primary School in the city, but then her dad died within a year.
“In the year my father died I sat my Kenya Certificate of Primary Education exam and was called to Hospital Hill Secondary School, but I couldn’t afford the school fees,” she says. “That’s why I had to go back home to Rarieda, where, as fate would have it, I would meet James.”
Fast-forward to 2003, and James had moved to the city while his love Rosemary, heartbroken and desperate, had dropped out of school. Seeking a break, she travelled to Mombasa for a “lucrative job” that a relative had found her.
That job, it turned out, involved freestyle, permanent partying in the company of tourists, who would also occasionally pay to sleep with her.
Rosemary later met a Greek man who rented a Sh60,000 house for her at Bamburi Beach. They lived together, but he kept going to Greece. She, on the other hand, filled the void and boredom with another Italian man, who soon became a close friend.
“I later learnt that he sold drugs, and I became his courier,” she says. “But some clients would insist that I inject myself with the drugs to prove they were safe, and that’s how I inadvertedly became a regular drug user.”
Her Greek boyfriend noticed the change in her and chased her away. With nowhere to go, she rented a small house in Mombasa, where she sank deeper and deeper into drug use and desolation.
“At some point I had to sell my household stuff just to buy cocaine. My younger sister, who had moved in with me, watched helplessly as I became a shell of my former self. I couldn’t live without cocaine and would draw blood from friends who had injected themselves with the drug and inject myself with it just to get the momentary high.” She is not sure, but this risky behaviour could be how she contracted the HIV virus.
In 2006, Rosemary’s sister suggested that they move to Nairobi in search of a new, better life. The gods were on her side as James, the love she had lost three years earlier, was also in Nairobi.
“One day my sister told me that she had met him at a wedding planning meeting, and that he had asked her where I was. Elated, I accompanied her for the next meeting.”
They met outside Hilton Arcade near the Kencom Bus Stage, and there, in the middle of the deafening groan of diesel engines, the cacophony of boda bodas, and the din of touting, their love was rekindled.
James had just landed a flight attendant job with Kenya Airways and lived in Umoja.
A few days afterwards, Rosemary conceived. Because of a strict government policy, she had to test for HIV as part of antenatal care. It turned positive but she hid the status from James.
“I had undergone several HIV tests because of the nature of my job and it did not occur to me that my wife, with whom I had been intimate several times without protection, could be HIV-positive,” he says.
Rosemary delivered their first baby girl through a Caesarian section on the advice of a doctor. James did not understand why his wife was not breastfeeding, and when he asked she told him she was producing too little milk to satisfy the baby.
“I kept travelling around the world and I bought baby formula from Amsterdam, London and other cities. The baby was very healthy. One day when I was off duty, I accompanied my wife to take the baby for check-up since she had developed some fever. The doctor asked whether the child was breastfeeding well and my wife said yes. But I interrupted and said that the baby had never breastfed.
“The moment I said that, my wife handed the child to me and walked out. Rosemary was very angry at me and I just did not understand why,” James recalls.
All this time, she wondered how to tell James that she had HIV. She had asked her doctor to keep her medical condition a secret and had promised to tell her husband herself, but she had no courage to utter the words.
“I felt guilty and prayed that I would not infect him. I also devised ways of denying him sexual intimacy, including getting angry at him whenever he tried to touch me.”
But lovers always have a way of finding and wanting each other, and in 2010 Rosemary conceived again. Because of pregnancy complications, the baby was born premature, again through a C-Section. And then life went back to its quiet throb , and soon after mother and daughter, born at 1.09kgs, were discharged from Nairobi Women’s Hospital.
That quiet throb was disrupted one day in 2012, when James returned home to find Rosemary had left their matrimonial house, at the time in Nyayo Estate, Embakasi. She had been doing this as a way of escaping from her husband’s intimacy, but the frequency had started bothering him.
“I traced her but she said she did not want to come back to me. Instead, she wanted a divorce,” he remembers.
True to her words, and to James’s shock, Rosemary moved to court to seek child support orders. The court granted her the wish and James was ordered to pay her Sh39,000 every month.
“She had left our three-bedroom house in Embakasi to live in a one-bedroom unit in the nearby Jua Kali,” he says, unable to fathom the absurdity of the move. While she was away, she discovered that she was pregnant with their third child.
As fate would have it, James was retrenched in September 2012 and could not pay the child support that the court had ordered. Rosemary was notified of the retrenchment when she visited the Kenya Airways staff clinic at the International Life House, Nairobi to seek medical attention for their daughter.
“That month I could not pay rent and we were locked out of our Jua Kali house. I called James and he asked me to move back to Nyayo Estate with the children, but we agreed that we would live as housemates.”
The retrenchment took a toll on James, who became a heavy drinker and did not bother going home. His entire savings were exhausted and he started selling his belongings, including his car, seats, TV set, computers and other effects. He even became suicidal.
They later moved to Pipeline Estate and took an NHIF cover because of the child they were expecting.
James started a small mandazi business and got a tender to supply the Nairobi offices of Swissport, a Swiss aviation services company providing airport ground and cargo handling services. Her regular supply of the foodstuff gave her the courage to face the manager and requested him to employ her husband, which he did.
She had registered for ARV therapy at a clinic in Embakasi under the fake name Brenda Shollei and concealed the drugs inside pockets of clothes in her closet. She also occasionally hid them in the kitchen.
When her husband came across the ARV therapy card one day, she lied to him that it was her friend’s. He even stumbled upon her medication several times but he did not know what they were for.
James had not been infected with the virus despite all those years of intimacy with his infected wife. The two were HIV-discordant, meaning Rosemary could not infect him. Studies have shown that consistent use of ARVs by the infected partner can both keep the positive partner healthier for longer, and reduce the risk they will pass the virus to their loved one.
The head of the National Aids and STI Control Programme, Mr Martin Sirengo, during the recent rollout of a HIV Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) drug, revealed that there are over 260,000 discordant couples in Kenya today.
In 2015 James resigned from the Swissport job to take up an offer he had been promised at the Wilson Airport, but it turned out to be a fraud. He was left jobless yet he had paid Sh200,000 from their collective savings to secure the job.
“My wife’s tender for the supply of the foodstuff also came to an end and we could no longer afford anything. We slept hungry and I remember one day all we could afford was black tea for dinner.
“I was woken up at 5am by commotions in the house, only to find out that our daughter had stumbled upon a piece of stale ugali. When she saw me, she stuffed it all in her mouth. I started crying. I felt like I had failed my children,” he says.
The couple lived like that for several months, with several misunderstandings, lack of money and no friends to turn to. Every business they started failed. They were conned, their children stayed out of school, and misery became a permanent visitor in their house.
They moved to Buru Buru and started a small restaurant. Life became better as they now had a regular income, but Rosemary harboured pain inside.
In January this year she stopped taking her ARVs. That decision would change their lives forever, as it meant that the viral load within her body could grow strong enough to infect James.
In June, the hiding and lying became too much for Rosemary to bear, and she opened up to her husband.
“I told him that we needed to talk and we agreed that we would have the conversation once the children were asleep,” she says.
When she disclosed that she was HIV-positive, shock seized James in a tight vice, squeezing the air from his lungs.
“He pretended to be strong but I could see his face turn pale,” she says. “The first thing he asked was ‘are the children infected?’”.
Rosemary informed him that she had followed all the doctor’s advice on the prevention of mother-to-child transmission, and that all the three children were free from HIV.
“I was shocked and confused,” James jumps in. “As she opened up about everything, I looked into her eyes and realised what a strong woman she was! My lovely wife had been orphaned at a tender age, ridiculed, lived in poverty, traded in and used drugs, got HIV, lost money, lived a lie, but carried all that burden on her own! She needed support now, and that’s why I pulled her for a hug.”
The couple decided that James would go for an HIV test the next day after church. He visited Metropolitan Hospital in Buru Buru and the test turned positive.
“I sought a second opinion at Meridian Hospital and it also turned positive. The doctor told me that I had been infected recently. At 1pm, my wife called me and I told her that the test results had turned positive. When I arrived home, she was alone in the house because the children were outside playing,” he says.
James and Rosemary had a long conversation on how to stay healthy and she referred him to her doctor. She started taking her ARVs again.
“And that’s how HIV helped me gain my family back,” says James. “We have since lived in harmony and we have made several strides in our lives. HIV is none of our worries and I feel we should have done this earlier because it has drawn us closer to one another.”
The couple is now planning to start an intensive campaign to help young people stay away from drugs and alcohol, apart from running their food court business.
“We want to stop stigma against people with HIV, and let the world understand that these special kinds of people need support and care. We do not know how, but sharing this story is the first of our baby steps. Stay with us, for the story has just begun!”