I arrived at Beatrice’s shop. Its iron sheet frame and nameless storefront made it indistinguishable from every other shop on the street. The only thing that made the shop unique was the person behind the counter. There’s only one Beatrice.
Beatrice was slim, and sported fiery red and black braids to go with her funny and lively personality. She was one of the few LPK women I came across who wasn’t afraid to flash a smile at the camera. When she did, I felt that she wasn’t smiling at the camera’s eye, but directly into my own. It was the warm and genuine smile of an old familiar friend. Her dimples framed her lips and sparkling teeth and inflated her cheeks like balloons on her thin face. When the wave of her smile reached the shores of her eyes, it caused them to narrow slightly and light up, like the playful foam that forms as the shoreline ebbs and flows and dances with the tide. In that smile, I could almost see what 12-year old Beatrice looked like, which made listening to her story that much more heartbreaking.
Beatrice has suffered a great deal of pain in her life. She was raped at the young age of 12 on her way to school.
Instead of receiving the love and support of her friends and family, she received outright rejection. Her friends abandoned her, while her mother treated her coldly. “Every time I would complain to my mom, she would not do anything. She told me that I have already become a woman,” she says. Feeling upset and betrayed, she ran away from home.
Beatrice ended up befriending a prostitute who housed her in exchange for taking care of her children and selling drugs for her. She also started using drugs herself.
Beatrice finally returned home seven years later, when she was pregnant with her first child. She visited a clinic and discovered that she was HIV Positive. With nowhere else to turn, she was forced to move back in with her mother, who rejected and shamed her for her HIV status. “At that time, my mother was an alcoholic. That night when she drank, she shouted and told everybody that I was HIV positive and that I have come back because I knew I was going to die.”
Her family even abandoned her once she went into labour, and Beatrice was left to give birth in their house entirely on her own. “After two hours, my family came back. They did not ask me who helped me or how did I deliver my baby.”
Overwhelmed by the stress of her situation, Beatrice began to loathe herself and her baby. This combination of stress and hatred was toxic, and she soon found her health deteriorating further.
Concerned with the worsening of their daughter’s health, the family forced Beatrice to move out to the small shed in the back where they cooked with firewood. “I stayed there, and they never came to see me.”
A neighbour, whose mother was also sick, learned of Beatrice’s status after her mother had drunkenly shouted the news to the neighbourhood. She told Beatrice of a woman who visited her mother regularly and suggested this woman might be able to help Beatrice as well. This woman was Mother Mary (Mom).
Beatrice had to meet Mom. Somehow. “At that time, I had stayed for a long time without moving, so it was hard for me to walk,” she says, adding, “Plus, I was weak because I was sick.”
Despite her weakened state, she managed to find Mom. ” I was not able to approach her, so I followed her. I followed her until the program. I went to the house, but I did not go in because I was afraid, so I stayed outside.”
The ladies in the office eventually noticed her standing outside, and Mom went outside to speak with her. “Because I didn’t know where to start, I just told her I was hungry.” Mom invited her inside and listened to her story.
Beatrice was soon enrolled in the Women Economic Empowerment Program, visiting the hospital regularly, and taking medication.
Unfortunately, Beatrice could still not face her mother. She chose instead to drop out of the program and go back to living with the prostitute. She explains her decision saying, “Because I did not have a place to stay and my mother was not letting me in, I left the class. And I was doing drugs, so I could see that the better place for me to stay was with those girls who were doing drugs. ” She lived there until she became pregnant with her second child.
At this time, with her children as her driving force and motivation, Beatrice returned to Mother Mary and was given a second chance in WEEP. “That is when my life started to be good,” she says. She was even given a place for her to stay with her children.
Then in 2015, she graduated from WEEP and opened her own business with the financial support of LPK.
WEEP taught her so much more than just business and tailoring, though. Through the love and support of those around her, Beatrice learned to forgive and trust those who stigmatized her, and she learned to love herself. “It was hard to manage on my own when everybody rejected me. Let me say that for all of those years after I knew my status and what happened to me, I was living in anger. I could not even trust anyone. I could see everyone wanted to use me, so it was hard for me.
“But when I was in WEEP class, we were having psychosocial classes, and through that we were able to overcome what is making you feel like you can’t move.
“I learned a lot about myself. I learned that I have to accept the way I am. I have to accept that what has happened is not a curse; it is something that is happening to everyone. It can happen to anyone else. I learned that if you can’t value yourself, other people will not value you.”
She even reconnected with her mother. “Last year in December, Mom took me to my mom’s house, and I asked for her forgiveness if I have done anything wrong to make her reject me. We resolved our differences.”
Beatrice has reclaimed her life thanks to LPK. When speaking about graduation day, she says, “I was very happy because when I was leaving the program on graduation, it wasn’t just that I was graduating. It meant that my life is my life, and it doesn’t matter what people say. I could make them see a difference.” She is now the proud owner of a shop that sells beauty products. (After the interview, she joked that now that she had shared her story with me, I had to christen her nameless shop. I suggested B’s Beauty Shop. We’ll see if it sticks.)
She is also the provider for her two daughters. The significance of the fact that her eldest daughter is turning twelve is not lost on her. “I feel like maybe something can happen to her,” she says. “I’m trying everything to make them be friendly with me. If anything happens to them, they can come tell me. I’m sure if anything happened to my girls, I would fight for them. To be a mother is to be a protector of your children. You have to take care of them. You have to teach them to move in good ways.”
Beatrice is a strong, beautiful, independent, and loving human being. She lived in cold darkness all alone for so long, though you would never know it from the light that radiates from her smile today. “LPK is the light, because I was in the dark and now I can see the light,” she says, adding “It has made me who I am. If you ask me where is my home, I would say it is LPK.”