NAIROBI, Kenya – When a visitor walks up the stony path to Catherine Mwayonga’s home in Thika, 30 minutes from the Kenyan capital, she hears their footsteps and raises her voice – bold and husky – to usher them in. She’s sitting on the sofa, knitting a sweater for a newborn baby and counting the stitches with her fingers. “Karibu sana (welcome),” she says.
Mwayonga, 62, the mother of six grown boys and two adopted daughters, is blind. She lost her eyesight when she was 7, after a cow kicked her in the head and threw her against a tree. She is also HIV-positive, which she only discovered when she overheard a doctor talking about her to his colleagues: “The patient on bed 12 is HIV-positive.”
Mwayonga remembers hearing him announce her status as she lay still on the cold bed, pretending to be asleep. “He said it in English, assuming that I did not understand,” she says. “It shocked me.”
That moment led to years of fear, denial and confusion as Mwayonga’s disability – one that had long ago become a natural part of her full life – suddenly became an impediment to coping with her illness. Everything from getting information from doctors to taking medication was a struggle. But 15 years on, Mwayonga has overcome those challenges and now devotes her time to advocating for HIV-positive people with disabilities, calling for more respect and improved resources.
The first case of HIV was discovered in Kenya in 1984, and the country’s infection rate currently stands at 5.6 percent. Figures from the Kenya National HIV and Aids Estimates shows it has the fourth highest HIV prevalence in the world, with about 1.6 million people infected with the virus.
For two years before her diagnosis, Mwayonga had pleaded with doctors to test her for HIV/AIDS. In 1996, after a decade of illness, her husband died from what Mwayonga later discovered were AIDS-related complications. She knew the risk of her having contracted HIV from him was high. “In 1999, I would have malaria today, typhoid tomorrow, but nothing specific,” she says. “I would ask why they were not testing me for HIV/AIDS. They would say the disease would not get [disabled] people like me. But I asked them: Aren’t I a human being?”