Kenya – The 48 year-old mother of five goes about her chores energetically, but occasionally stops to bark out instructions to her children who are helping out with housework in Bukolwe village, Kakamega County.
This is a drill Zeituna Sakwa, a peer counselor who tested positive for Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)-the Aids causing virus some 18 years ago has mastered by heart.
The tight bond with her immediate family members motivates her to work harder and give hope to the people living with HIV in her community where she also works as a caregiver and mentor to young people.
Sakwa found out she was HIV positive in an uncanny way in 1994, at a time when discussions about HIV were conducted in hushed tones and the last thing she expected was to test positive.
“My brother who was an administrator in Butere would fall sick many times and we did not know what the problem was,” says Sakwa.
Unknown to the family, her brother was infected with HIV and had started going for treatment at a local hospital. During one of his visits to the hospital, he was asked to take along his two wives for counseling and testing.
“He asked me to join his two wives in case they needed support after testing. When we got to the hospital, all of us were counseled and the doctor asked me if I wanted to test for HIV to which I agreed,” Sakwa says.
Both her sisters-in-law tested negative-a fact she says is still mystery-perhaps another case of discordant couples, but the doctor who conducted the tests asked her to see her at a later date, which Sakwa did. She was counseled and after that was informed that she had the virus.
“I got worried but I quickly realised that worrying would not change my situation. I got accustomed to the idea that I had the virus. I knew there was no other way but to live with it so I decided to take good care of myself,” laughs Sakwa.
Incidentally, the woman with a steely character has not suffered many opportunistic infections and the most serious case she got is that of goiter, which she experienced last year. She has also not been using life sustaining Anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs).
But how has she managed this long without drugs?
“Personally, I had to start by accepting my situation. I then informed my family. I told everyone including my children and decided to spread the message of hope by meeting people to encourage them and getting encouragement too in the process. This is how I have come this far,” she says.
At the time of the test, Sakwa had four children. She got her last born after she was diagnosed HIV and says she was able to keep her last-born child free of the virus because of her rich knowledge of the condition.
She says her CD4 count has never gone below 350. Last year she suffered goiter, which needed surgical operation but she opted to forgo the procedure in order to save money for school fees for her son who joined college.
She is still strong, but hopes to save about Sh150,000 for the operation, which she hopes will be done next year.
Sakwa says that the biggest problem in the fight against HIV and Aids is that some of those who test positive go on a revenge mission, seeking to infect others and those who live in denial. To her, this leads to further spread of the virus leading to deaths that can easily be avoided.
Her case could offer a case-study for researchers who have been working on HIV and Aids as it might help researchers discover ways in which people living with the virus can be helped to live longer, healthier lifestyles.
She says people should get tested because this is the only way to start a meaningful walk towards zero infection. She argues that people cannot pretend to fight against what they have no idea about and is urging people to know their status as a first step in the fight in the fight against the virus.
According to data from the AIDS Epidemic Update, about 33.4 million people world over are living longer due to antiretroviral therapy but research needs to be done on cases like Sakwa’s.
For her hard work, Sakwa recently became a beneficiary of a dairy goat, which she received from Senior Women Citizens for Change, an organisation that sensitises and empowers women and caregivers in Eregi and Butere on the plight children orphaned by HIV and Aids.
The organisation’s executive director, Pauline Nyakwaka, says that they settled on dairy goats because of the nutritious value of the milk which is beneficial especially to people living with HIV.