Ann has worked for Living Positive Kenya for eight years now, and in that time, she has become a symbol of strength, love, and hope in the community. It’s clear when she walks around the neighbourhood and everybody stops to laugh and talk with her. She is a central figure here, working both as a Community Health Worker for LPK, and as the Head of the Health Department for her community. This is an amazing fact when you consider that once upon a time, she was seen as a leper in the community.
Ann married at the age of 23, and for the next five years, she spent much of her time going back and forth between her home and the hospital, completely unaware of why she was always sick.
Then in 1999, it was recommended that she get tested for HIV. The results came back positive. Ann couldn’t believe it. She didn’t believe it. She was too stressed and focused on trying to provide for her seven-year old son to even begin to process what that status might mean for her. “I was stressed out at the time about my sickness because my son was just seven years old,” she says. “I had a green grocer selling vegetables, and during that time I was not able to work or even cook for my child or clean the house. And my husband was working every day until 5 pm as a driver, so I was not able to raise my son.”
The rejection of her family and community made the decision to move to Ngong the following year easy. Here, nobody knew of her status.
Unfortunately, Ann’s husband passed away five years later in 2005. Her sister-in-law told everybody in the community that she had infected her husband, and suddenly the stigma was once again thrust upon her. “She said that this lady has infected her brother with HIV. She told everyone. So stigma started from there in Ngong. And there were not many people who had HIV, so people thought I was the only one who had HIV.”
Two years later, Ann was invited to an LPK support group. At the time, LPK was just starting, and people in the community did not know about the HIV status of the other women in the support group. Once these women saw Ann, they became afraid that their association with her would out them to the rest of the community. They did not want her there. Mum, however, said “No, this lady is here to stay. If anybody doesn’t want to stay with her, you can go.”
In those early days of LPK, the group only consisted of 15 bedridden women. Mum opened a kitchen and cooked for the women and their families. She gave them a place to eat, relax, and be among friends. They would stay the entire day, before eventually heading home with food for their families in the evening. They also made postcards and bookmarks to finance their trips to the hospital to get their medication.
Ann did this for about two years, and soon enough, people were approaching her to ask how she’d managed to get healthy and fight off the stigma around her illness.
Mum advised that she study to become a Community Health Worker rather than enter WEEP, and with the financial support of US Aid, that’s exactly what she did. “I wanted to help people fight stigma and help people in the community who were sick,” she said. The learning experience was invaluable to her. “I gained knowledge about fighting stigma, positive living, and disclosure–I was able to disclose to my relatives about my status.”
Her responsibilities include home visits, hospital referrals, and checking in with the hospitals on patient progress, among many others. She keeps the community happy and healthy. “Our motto is when we go to visit your neighbour and you find another neighbour very sick, you cannot leave that neighbour to die there. You must help the neighbour.”
“I feel so good because I am dealing with lives,” she says. “When I help someone and see that the person has become healthy and the person has accepted her or himself–he or she is able to fight stigma and not have self-stigma–I am happy. I am happy when people can say, ‘Yes, I have HIV, but it’s not bothering me. I can take medication. I can stay healthy. And I can stay positive.’
Like many of the other women here at LPK, her positivity is what keeps Ann going. She’s always wearing a smile on her face; and when that smile erupts into laughter, her entire body shakes with the force of an earthquake that begins in her core, in her soul, and roars into a beautiful violent explosion. She even walks with a light musical step. Ann spreads joy and positivity wherever she goes.