Nairobi — Concealing his status for fifteen years presented a heavy burden for Morris Were, well aware of the stigma a HIV positive status attracted in his community.
In 2020, Were braved the courage to go public about his status in a bid to create awareness and advocacy on adherence to HIV therapy, as well as agitate for prevention.
“I was brought up in the slums part of Mathare. I was seeing how people living with HIV were living in stigma. Everybody living with HIV was hiding their status and no one wanted to talk about it,” he recalled.
“I asked myself for how long will I continue living like this?” he pondered.
For the 15 years, he had seen people living with HIV give up the fight of battling the virus especially due to internalized stigma and discrimination which affected their emotional well-being and mental health.
“Through stigma people were dying because if you are stigmatized there are high chances you will default and not adhere to drugs. Once you are adhering you will definitely transmit your HIV virus to someone else,” Were said.
His decision however attracted wide criticism, so much so that it affected his livelihood.
For years, Were had eked a living through a food vending business but when the public realized he was living with HIV, they shunned him.
“When I went to a certain TV station and I talked my HIV status and journey. People started asking me if I was really positive or I was doing it for money. For those who believed that’s how I found my customers going down,” he narrated.
“In a span of few months my business went down. I think they believed that I would contact HIV through food,” Were added.
At the peak of the Coronavirus Pandemic, he was jobless in the wake of an economic shutdown due to safety measures set in place by the government.
“I had nothing to do, so I didn’t know where to start. I decided to move to second hand clothes business but due to restriction of movement, it wasn’t easy,” Were recalled.
But it wasn’t all gloom for him revealing his HIV status. Despite the nuances that come with dating while living with HIV/AIDS, in 2021 he found love.
The fallout with his wife and mother of their two children in 2018 had meant that finding love not be a walk in the park.
His new partner Janet, reached out on Faceboook, a platform Were would use occasionally to raise awareness on living and preventing HIV/AIDS.
Janet’s conversation precipitated a marriage union having sparked love at first sight.
“On that day something pushed me, I just tagged him but we hadn’t talked before .I don’t think he has ever noticed me. People usually say its men who should make the first move. But I made the first move,” she said.
“I had lived single for four years but now I was ready. The reason why I has been single is because of stigma. When I met Morris I felt safe because we had the same status,” Janet added.
Like her partner, Janet’s journey living with HIV was a tumultuous one riddled with denial. She also faced physical and emotional abuse as well as lack of support from her friends and family.
Janet learnt about her status during her second pregnancy and even though she was in denial, the fear that failure to adhere to medication would transmit the virus to her unborn twins forced here to be consistent in medication.
A dark cloud would linger in her life three months after giving birth, as her husband started becoming abusive at a time when she was coming into terms with her status.
“When pregnant, I adhered to medication because of my pregnancy. I had not accepted my situation. At that time my husband started beating me and mistreating me. Being an orphan, I had nowhere to go to,” said Janet.
Wallowing in depression, Janet defaulted the HIV treatment for a year readying herself for the worst: death. She was tired and felt no support was forthcoming especially from her loved ones.
“In my defaulting process I found myself in KNH.I had meningitis and TB. Meningitis drove me to madness and became completely blind. I was dying; when my family visited they told me all they were waiting for was my burial,” she said.
Drowning in isolation as she laid on the hospital bed, it would take a well wisher from AIDS Healthcare Foundation for her to regain her health back.
“One day when AHF staffs were going round the hospital .They came and heard my story and decided to transfer me to a private hospital. That’s when I recovered and at least had my eyesight back,” Janet stated.
When Janet went back home to his husband after treatment nothing had changed.
“It reached a point I decided that this was enough. I could see that my kids weren’t safe anymore. I decided to move out. Moving out from my first marriage was the best decision. I regained my self-identity back,” Janet stated.
Fast forward, Janet and Were have chosen to live their past behind and forge ahead together in love. They have five children together from previous marriages.
“Don’t let your HIV status decided who are you. HIV is just something am hosting in my body like how you can host a visitor.I have controlled it, it can control me or my life. Just by adhering to your medication, you can live like a negative person,” Janet advises.
“For those looking for love don’t make a negative person make you feel like they are doing you a favor by being with you. I am 15 years living with HIV and I am this healthy. In my advocacy I aim to prevent new infections,” she adds.