Inviolata celebrates life, and yet another birthday, in Kenya, where over 600 people die from HIV/AIDS every day. This brave woman is confronting not only her own fears, but also the expectations of her community and Kenyan society about what it means to live with AIDS.
Life at 20 marked the turning point. For many, life would have taken a downward spiral. But not for Inviolata Mbwavi. After going through the usual motion of shock, fear and denial, she resolved not to let the virus complete the hatchet job.
Fourteen years later, her steady hands aided by a number of other hands drive the knife into the red, ribbon cake. With each cut, the room drowns in rounds of applause. Another purple cake sits nearby like an impatient child begging for candy.
“The purple cake represents the years I have survived courtesy of the Almighty, while the other shaped like the red-ribbon, the years I have defied the virus.” Inviolata says as she gets hugs from friends and family.
When they finally break into the “Happy Birthday” it takes a completely new meaning. It is a celebration of life made new; living positively with HIV.
“This was the month I was diagnosed with HIV, I had just turned 20”, she later tells me.
Inviolata had stepped out of teenage life with optimism. But when the doctor waved her Elisa test-results, life crumbled. From her teenage years she carried HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Then, pre-test counselling was limited and anti-retroviral treatment in the realm of illusion.
“Nowadays I don’t expect anyone who has tested positive to commit suicide, not to go to school, miss work or simply refuse to live. If we were to die we would have died then, but we’ve survived,” she says.
Life must have been a sip of hemlock, I thought.
“Invy, we love and value you…” a voice interrupts as if reading my thoughts. It came from one of her brothers, shouting from the furthest corner among a group of teenagers, munching a huge piece of roasted chicken.
Inviolata stands up, her open palm gently on her heart and stoops in appreciation, “Love you too bro, virus or no virus.” The room lights up into hearty cheers. Love, care and support had knocked out the wind from under the wings of the virus.
Born in a family of ten siblings, having many brothers and sisters means an abundance of love, care and support. Unlike a number of people living with HIV/AIDS in Kenya, Inviolata’s family has outpaced stigma and discrimination.
“Love and support from my family, friends and colleagues is the oxygen I have been breathing for the past 14 years.”
Slightly plump, Inviolata frequently breaks into a sweetly ringing laughter displaying a set of teeth, as white as the droppings of the oluru bird (the white only interrupted by gaps between her teeth), ringed-patterns on her neck staring back in coy pride- all these are the hallmarks of African beauty.
Inviolata heads the Network for Empowerment of People Living and Affected with HIV/AIDS in Kenya (NEPHAK). Her name is found in the oft minimal space in the anti-HIV/AIDS diary in Kenya.
Inviolata advises for those living with the virus, birthdays call for celebration. A symbolic defiance against a stealthy virus infecting 40 million people globally, 75% of whom reside in Africa and where 600 Kenyans die every day.
Her boyfriend, who is also HIV-negative could not attend the party as he was away on business. But Inviolata is proud of their eight-year relationship, despite pressure from his relatives for their son to find a serro-negative girl.
“Marriage for me has become complicated because of the African traditions which require that a woman be capable of giving birth. I cannot do that without putting my boyfriend at risk.”
At one time the pressure on them was so much that Inviolata almost broke up with her partner. But reassurance from her boyfriend, whose name she does not want to reveal, kept the relationship intact.
She remains, however, optimistic that over time, her prospective in-laws will change their minds and accept her as a wife. This is especially the case because of the abundance of medical intervention currently available in the management of HIV/AIDS.
The advent of Highly Active Anti-retroviral Therapy (HAART) has turned HIV/AIDS into a chronic though manageable disease away from the bare-knuckled killer it was a decade ago. This means more birthdays for those who are HIV-positive.
“There is life beyond the virus, I don’t expect those who test positive today to stop living.”
But despite Inviolata’s reassuring words, her face turns into a mask of sadness as a shade flushes across her smooth peeled-avocado face. After hesitation she reveals what has pierced her heart.
“There are those who still think we are children of lesser gods because of our HIV-status. We should celebrate more birthday to prove our determination to live to the fullest.”
The conversation had drifted to the brutal murder of a 15-year old HIV-positive boy in Nyeri. At this point one could hear a feather drop as everyone sat with hand on cheek (a pose reflecting deep sadness in African context).
Weeks earlier Inviolata had led a demonstration condemning the hacking to death of Isaiah Gakuyo by his guardian uncle. He had driven the forked end of a hoe into Isaiah’s temple, snuffing out an already frail life. His justification? Isaiah’s constant sickness because of the virus was an unnecessary bother, he was heard bragging. To date, he remains at large, courtesy of relatives who harbour him, a Children’s Department reluctant to raise a finger and a community hesitant to break the silence.
“The murder is a sign that stigma and discrimination is becoming an epidemic on its own. We still need to change attitudes towards people living with HIV/AIDS.”
And despite the fact that the war against stigma and discrimination is easing, they are determined to emerge victorious.
“Today it is Isaiah Gakuyo, tomorrow it could be you, your mother, father, or your loved one. Embrace us with love…”
The burst of the mwana wamberi song jolts us out of the sad pre-occupation. The song is sang among Luhya to celebrate the birth of the first born. Indeed it was appropriate for Inviolata, who like a first born in the family was leading the way in the anti-AIDS struggle.
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