It is a cold afternoon in 2009, girls at Asumbi High are streaming slowly towards the school clinic which has now been temporarily set up as a testing center. The counselor is ready, kits neatly arranged, everything set.
Like many other girls going for the test, Phenny hasn’t thought much about the procedure, because she is not expecting any surprises. When it is her turn, the counselor asks her casually, ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’
Her blood sample is taken, and she sits to wait for the results. Phenny is calm, with really no reason to worry about anything.
A few minutes in, her results are ready, and the test reads positive.
I did not understand how, and did not know how to react. I was just sitting there, my head suddenly blank.
‘But you said you don’t have a boyfriend?’ the counselor said.
‘No, I don’t.’
‘Nothing else was said to me after that. That was it, no counseling, no words to tell me it’s okay and here’s what you can do. Nothing. I was 16! I left for class; My mind in a haze. How was I HIV positive? When did this happen? I did not understand.
I didn’t know what to do. I needed to talk to someone. My world had suddenly become so small and dark, I was going to go crazy if I did not talk to someone. So I confided in my best friend at that time, who was very understanding and supportive at first.
A few days after disclosing my status to her, everyone in the school was whispering about me. Even teachers would pass by our class to see who this girl with HIV is.
I had suddenly shifted from being Phenny, to Phenny the Girl With HIV.
I was traumatized.’
Phenny decided to call her family about it. She talked to her big sister Viola, who also doubled up as her guardian ever since their parents died.
‘Viola came to the school and we sat down to talk. Her response and generally my family’s response was very different from my friends’ and schoolmates’. She was very calm about it. Viola told me our parents had died of the virus, and that I had very possibly been born with it.
I am the last child in a family of six, and at that time was also a virgin.’
Over the August holidays, Phenny started taking her ARVs, and though that was not the very beginning of her journey with HIV, it was different, in that now she knew her status.
‘It took me a while to adjust to this new lifestyle. My body at first refused the medication, and I would experience nausea, drowsiness and loss of appetite. Over time, my body and mind became one with this new lifestyle I had to live.
Five years after her diagnosis, Phenny met someone and got married.
‘He was HIV negative.’
Phenny explains, ‘I met a number of suitors who were interested in a relationship, but the moment I disclosed my status, they never stayed. I made it a vow to always disclose my status to someone keen on us dating, so that they make a conscious and informed decision to stay, or not.
My now ex-husband came, and stayed, even though he was HIV negative. Our relationship was made possible by the fact that I had a low viral load, which basically means the amount* of HIV detectable in my blood cells. When the viral load is low chances of infecting another person with the virus is very low, almost impossible. I would do these tests three times a year just to be sure. At first we would have protected sex, and then he felt ready for us to start having unprotected sex.’
Phenny got pregnant with their first child, Emmanuellah Faraja, and soon after, Ahadi Mor followed.
‘Things started getting rocky in our marriage when I was pregnant with our second child. My husband was cheating on me, and he later confirmed it. This was a deal breaker, as it was a door to HIV re-infection and other opportunistic infections. We split ways and I dedicated myself to taking care of our two little girls.’
Phenny currently works as an online writer, and also runs Taji Foundation, an organization geared towards raising awareness on HIV/AIDS, and working with people living with the virus, discordant couples, on how to better manage their health, and society stigma.
‘I started Taji Foundation in 2016, but launched operations in 2017 after I came out publicly about my HIV status. We have partnered with a number of organizations including NEPHAK, to ensure a wider reach.’
What can we do to support your cause, I ask.
‘It is important that people are re-educated about HIV again, in 2018. A lot has been unsaid, and unlearnt, like safe sex practices. We need to go back and start re-educating ourselves. Also just as important is stopping stigma, which plays a big role in the spread of this virus. People don’t get tested because they are afraid of what will be said, and even those who know their status and are positive are afraid to get ARVs. What will people say? We need to put an end to stigma.’
This year, Phenny Awiti clocks 10 years since she tested positive.