Better HIV treatment and services are providing new opportunities for Eunice Wanjawa and her daughter, Rose.
Eunice Wanjawa is challenging her community’s beliefs about what it means to live with HIV
For three years, Eunice Wanjawa lived with two terrible secrets: she had tested positive for HIV. Even worse, she had unknowingly passed the infection on to her firstborn child.
There was no one Eunice could tell in her community in western Kenya. Above all, it was essential that her husband, Moses, never find out. She hid her medications and avoided going to the doctor. She made excuses when Moses and her mother-in-law asked her about having another baby.
“I thought this child of mine was going to pass away. That was what I feared most,” she says of her daughter, Rose.
HIV doesn’t mean death
But HIV is no longer the swift and certain death sentence it once was. With better treatment and health care services, patients are living longer and healthier lives. In western Kenya, where HIV prevalence is the highest in the country, PATH works to ensure HIV patients like Eunice have access to comprehensive health services, including testing and counseling, antiretroviral treatment, family planning, and strategies to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
Eunice’s journey since her 2004 diagnosis illustrates the new possibilities for people living with HIV in Kenya. As a wife, mother, business owner, and community health worker, Eunice is showing her family and her community what it means to live positively with HIV.
The devastating news
Rose seemed healthy when she was born in 2002, but was soon fighting recurrent bouts of pneumonia. At age two, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Hospital workers asked Eunice to take an HIV test, then broke the devastating news: both mother and baby were HIV positive.
The fear of being stigmatized, shunned, even assaulted by their partners and families keeps many Kenyans from disclosing their HIV status. An estimated 1.6 million Kenyan adults are living with HIV, with prevalence significantly higher among women than men.
Eunice uses her personal story to change the way people see those living with HIV.
Eunice kept her news a secret. She had a second child in 2005, following the precautions of health workers to avoid transmitting the infection again. In 2007, she became pregnant with her third child, and hospital workers told her she needed to bring Moses in for testing.
“He is ever there for me”
Eunice sits side by side with Moses in their modest house near Kisumu and recalls how she eventually worked up the courage to share her secret. Moses starts to say that hearing the news was not so hard, but Eunice interrupts.
“He sent me away. I had to pack my things and go for two months. It wasn’t easy for him. Why should we not say the truth?”
Eventually, the couple reconciled. Moses, a truck driver, tested negative for HIV, as have the couple’s younger children. “He is ever there for me,” Eunice says. “And he is an example to the community.”
No more secrets
Slowly, Eunice began to share her story more broadly. Even after she was fired from her job at a hotel when she disclosed her HIV status, Eunice decided she’d had enough of secrets—and that sharing her story might do some good.
Today, neighbors and family members turn to Eunice for advice about protecting themselves from HIV, getting tested, or living in a relationship where one person is HIV positive and one is not. Her standing in the community and willingness to be open about her HIV status led PATH to recruit Eunice as a peer educator.
A full life despite HIV
Eunice leads support groups and makes a special effort to encourage pregnant women to get tested. She uses her personal story to change the way people see those living with HIV. “I’m doing anything anyone else can do. I’m involved in my community. I’m working on my farm. And my younger children are HIV negative,” she says.
She recently started a brick-making business next to her house, hiring two men to make up to 1,000 bricks a day. She is now the main breadwinner in the family, earning enough to pay private-school tuition for her children.
Hope for the next generation
Eunice’s cell phone alarm goes off twice a day, reminders that it’s time for her and Rose, age 11, to take their medications. She watches over Rose’s diet and health carefully. Rose, wearing a T-shirt that reads “happy girl” and a shy smile, says she hopes one day to become a doctor.
Despite significant progress, the toll of HIV remains high in Kenya, and discrimination and misinformation are widespread. But Eunice has reason to hope that life will be better for her daughter—and that one day, her community will be free of HIV.
Photo: PATH/Eric Becker.