I enter Mary’s home and am immediately stricken by its small size. The living room is just wide enough to fit a pair of couches and a pair of chairs facing each other in a rectangular formation. In fact, it’s so small that she has to move a table just for me to find a seat.
Behind her, something is cooking in the kitchen. I don’t see a bedroom anywhere, but I assume there has to be one somewhere–perhaps past the kitchen.
Before Living Positive Kenya entered the picture, Mary lived a life so lonely and secluded in this little home that the isolation from the rest of the world almost cost her her life. However Mary’s world and her circle of friends have grown a thousand times over thanks to LPK.
Mary has known of her HIV status since 2004, though she was sick much before then. After her husband died in 1997, the doctor recommended she get tested, but like many other women, Mary chose to live in denial. She did not accept her status until the second time she fell ill with Tuberculosis.
She was highly stigmatized by her community and her family once they learned of her status. “I was living in this house by myself, with no one to talk to, no one to share anything. I felt so lonely because I couldn’t share my personal experiences and feelings with anyone,” she says.
Her mother was the only one who would sometimes bring her food and try to comfort her, but those in the community warned her, “Mom! She will infect you with HIV!” The pain of the rejection was almost too much. “That made me feel so bitter and angry to the point of committing suicide,” she says.
One day, while at the hospital to pick up some medication, Mary met a woman who told her about LPK and what they do. She went to a support group meeting on a Friday and found people who embraced her and welcomed her rather than discriminate and stigmatize her. “These are people who have something special in common,” she says. “They’re taking the same medication; they don’t hate; they love, they share, they help each other in solving each other’s problems. They all love and support each other. I felt like LPK was a home for me. LPK saved my life. I wished every day was Friday.”
Earlier this year, LPK helped Mary pay for an expensive medical procedure that discovered that her lungs were not doing very well. She was given medication, and is doing much better now. Again, LPK saved her life.
Unfortunately, this illness in her chest cost Mary her grocery business, since she could not work. Being the sole provider for her two children, her three-year old grandson, and her 27 year old nephew with special needs, her lack of work has been very concerning for Mary. Her grandson’s parents both died of HIV when the boy was only six months old, while her nephew needs significant levels of support.
Mary worries about providing for her family. “The biggest challenge is not having my business when everybody is looking to me for support,” she says, adding, “People can’t give me casual jobs. I have to go far from home to look for work because people here think if they give me their clothes to wash, I will infect them.”
But Mary tries not to worry too much about her financial situation, because she trusts that God will take care of her and her family. After all, the Lord brought LPK into her life. “When I was very sick and I was determined to go to the hospital, LPK took me to the hospital. Now my child is off to school thanks to LPK.I feel God has just remembered me. I have seen the light.” She finds comfort in knowing that whenever she has a problem, she knows she can turn to her LPK family.
Mary is proud to be part of the LPK family. She is proud to be a mentor and an example of hope and inspiration to new members of the support group. Just as LPK was able to lift her spirits, she strives to do the same for others by sharing her journey. “When people are coming for the first time to the support group, they are so down from having just learned their status,” she explains. “They’re so bitter. But now here is this person who has been here for so long and has been taking her medication, and she is okay. They see that medication is not a death sentence. They see that they have a life to live. You can still take care of your children. So sometimes sharing my story helps others.”
While she does not believe that the stigma around HIV will ever disappear, Mary does believe that you must “accept who you are and know who you are,” adding that “The moment you give yourself a stigma, people will stigmatize you; but the moment you accept the situation you are in, you don’t even care what they say. So you have to accept yourself, because stigma starts with oneself. I am happy with my life. I know myself. The important lesson is to accept and love yourself.”
I guess when you love yourself, you can never really be alone.