“We can bring hope to everyone in my country.”
PATH program officer June Omollo shared her story at the 2010 Breakfast for Global Health.
My name is June Omollo. I was born and raised and now work in Kenya, as a program officer for PATH.
My country faces many challenges—epidemics, like HIV and malaria; terrible risks for new mothers and babies, and many others. As a Kenyan, and as a mother, it would be easy to be scared and to be overwhelmed. But I have hope for my country, in part because of people like you.
Today I want to tell you about that hope, where it comes from, and what it means for Kenya.
Last year, I lost one of my children. My adopted daughter, Poline. She was only 18.
Poline overcame many hurdles in her short life. Her birth mother killed herself when she found out she had HIV. Her father died of AIDS several months later. In the months before he died, he raped 12-year-old Poline, infecting her with the virus.
After her father’s death, Poline was an outcast. Poline was in and out of the hospital. But no one knew for sure that she had AIDS—in Kenya at that time, children could not be tested for HIV without a parent to consent.
She became so weak that she couldn’t even carry her bags to school. Even her shoes were too heavy to wear. That’s when her teacher contacted me. At that time, I was volunteering with a community aid project in Nakuru.
When I met Poline, she was in a ward for people who are very, very sick. She was the only child there. She was terrified.
I suspected she had HIV. So I took a risk: I explained to her about HIV tests, and I convinced the counselors to allow it without parental consent. At only 13 years old, she had so much zest to live, she decided to be tested.
Of course, the results were devastating to her. Imagine finding out at age 13 that you have AIDS, without a father or a mother. From that time, I promised Poline I would be her mother. She joined my other children in my heart.
No child should have to fight AIDS as Poline Karwitha did.
By negotiating with a local hospital, I was able to get medicine for her. In time, Poline started secondary school and grew into a beautiful girl. She wanted everyone to learn, so she became a teacher to the youth in Sunday school.
But in 2006, Poline contracted tuberculosis. Over the next couple of years, it became clear that the drugs weren’t working—the infection wouldn’t go away. And in October of last year, as she was studying for her final exams, she became sick. Because of her incredible strength, she was determined to take the exams in the hospital.
She had promised me that she would take her exams in the morning. And she told me how much she loved me. But she died with the exams on the table in her room.
We gave my daughter Poline a hero’s funeral.
AIDS, tuberculosis—these are diseases no child should ever fight. These are diseases no one should have to fight. Because they are preventable, they are manageable, and they are curable.
My daughter’s story is very personal. It’s still very hard to say it out loud. But I’m sharing it with you because I know there is hope: hope for children like my daughter, hope for people across my country, Kenya.
As you can see, Kenya is a hard place to grow up. While I didn’t suffer like Poline, I too struggled as a teenager. Most of my girlfriends became pregnant and dropped out of school. Many of them died of AIDS.
They wanted the normal teenage things. They wanted to be accepted. They wanted to have their first relationships. I wanted the same things.
But in Kenya, those choices can be deadly. There was no sex education in schools. At home, families didn’t talk about these issues. We relied on friends and gossip to learn about pregnancy and diseases. Often what we learned was wrong.
I was lucky. I didn’t get HIV. I didn’t become pregnant. I managed to stay in school. Now I’m seeing my children face the same choices and the same risks. I want them to have the power to choose healthy lives. I want everyone in Kenya to have the power to choose health. That’s what my work at PATH is all about.
Now I want to tell you another story, about a girl named Eunice.
When I met Eunice Anyona, she was only 15 years old, a student in secondary school. Two years before graduation, the school asked her to leave—because she had become pregnant. Eunice couldn’t tell her father—she had to let her mother tell him. And her life became very hard.
Her father refused to see her. When her mother tried to intervene, he beat them both. Eunice was forced to leave home. She stayed with her aunt until she gave birth, to a baby boy.
Her hopes were no longer to finish school, to become a doctor, to have her own family. Her future now was to find a job and to raise her son alone.
But this story has a happy ending.
Her parents joined one of PATH’s peer support programs. These programs help families talk openly about sex, pregnancy, HIV, and other issues. Her parents learned about communication and problem-solving within the family. And they asked Eunice to come home.
Life at home has changed a lot. Her father stopped drinking, he no longer beats his wife and daughter.
Today Eunice is back at school. And she has become a leader for other teens, leading discussions with teenagers from other families in the neighborhood.
Eunice is the hope of her family, and girls like her are Kenya’s hope as well. PATH was a catalyst for this family, and because of that, Eunice is a catalyst for other girls like her.
When we look at the causes of malaria, of HIV, of Kenya’s immense maternal and child health challenges—we see poverty, inequity, the overwhelming size of these problems.
But when we look at solutions—we see people. Every person can be a catalyst for change—and not just in their own lives, but in the lives of everyone around them. Like Eunice and my daughter Poline.
PATH encourages people to make changes in their own families, their own communities, and to keep the cycle going. In my work, I have seen men and women die because doctors have no resources to help them. I have seen young girls like Poline infected with HIV because they have no information and no power, because they are vulnerable and have nobody to turn to.
We are changing this at PATH. We work with schools to teach girls and boys about HIV and other issues. We have programs that address clean water, diarrheal disease, HIV, and malaria. We’re building systems to control tuberculosis. We support health facilities so they can provide better services to more people. We help communities decide how they can overcome health problems.
And we know it is working. We can see the numbers changing. For HIV alone, we have seen the prevalence in Kenya drop by half.
There is still more to do. There are still people like my daughter Poline, people who need lifesaving solutions.
But now we know it can be done. We can bring hope to everyone in my country.
For the first time, we have health in our hands—health within our reach. We cannot do it without you. We are so grateful for your help.
Thank you all.
Photos, from top: PATH/Ellen Cole, June Omollo.