Immune & Autoimmune Diseases

In My Village, There Are Many Diseases, But Only One Sickness

In Kenya, where I live, HIV/AIDS has become a family curse.

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When I heard the soft knock at the door, I thought at first it was the squeak of bats on our ceiling or the sound of wind whispering through the lonely Grevillea trees outside. When the knock came again, my dad dashed for the door. Opening it, he found my cousin, Liz: a frail and fading likeness of the woman we once knew. 

We hadn’t seen Liz for about ten years. But now, here she was, seemingly on the fringe of health and life. 

Not a second was wasted on pleasantries. With what he later described as a dreadful feeling of déjà vu, my father asked: “Liz, what’s wrong?”

But before she even responded, the answer was obvious. 

“I am sick.”

She didn’t need to explain the nature of her sickness. In the Kenyan village hugging Lake Victoria where I live, there are many diseases, but only one Sickness. It’s not malaria, or diabetes, or tuberculosis, or even cancer. Those are just miserable pretenders. It’s HIV/AIDS.  

There are many diseases, but only one Sickness. It’s not malaria, or diabetes, or tuberculosis, or even cancer. Those are just miserable pretenders. It’s HIV/AIDS.  

Our family has had a painful history with AIDS.

I was only ten when my uncle, Liz’s father, died. It was the first such death in our home, but shortly after, three of my uncle’s wives died of AIDS too. Soon, HIV started looking like a family curse. Within six years, my brother lost five brothers, four of them from AIDS. 

In the 90s, there was an incredible amount of stigma surrounding AIDS in Kenya. Even the family of people who had HIV could be tarred by its brush.

The Oganga family.

To his credit, my father, a nurse by profession, decided to take in most of my orphaned cousins anyway. But the real burden rested squarely on my mom. My parents had six children. After bringing in Liz and my other cousins, there were sometimes as many as twenty people living in our home. 

When Liz showed up on our doorstep, wasting away, it seemed like a double tragedy. Here was a woman who was orphaned by AIDS, only to be infected by HIV herself. Looking at her, it felt personal, as if HIV wanted to wipe our family out. There was a lump in my dad’s throat as he made the call for a motorcycle taxi to take Liz to the hospital. 

Here was a woman who was orphaned by AIDS, only to be infected by HIV herself. Looking at her, it felt personal, as if HIV wanted to wipe our family out.

Unlike my uncle–her father–Liz was put on antiretrovirals, which they didn’t have in the 90s. Yet these meds don’t work equally well for everyone, and even medicated, Liz still looks sick. Her hands tremble almost all the time; er fingers seem determined to run away. She suffers nervous mood swings that sometimes has my mother throwing up her hands in expasteration. Then, the next day, she’s fine: determined to live positively even in the face of this disease.

What I admire most about Liz is her determination. Not just to live, but to thrive, unashamed of the disease that lurks in her blood. “Tomorrow, I’ll be going for my meds”, she unashamedly informs people henever her next appointment looms, refusing to let the stigma around AIDS keep her silent. 

About 1.3 million Kenyanss, or 5% of all adults, live  with HIV… and for every man, there are two women living with the disease. 

What I admire most about Liz is her determination. Not just to live, but to thrive, unashamed of the disease that lurks in her blood.

Liz is one of them, and while our nation continues to struggle under the stigma and shame of this disease, I watch my cousin persevere in spite of the many low whispers behind her back. While many are ruined by shame and fear after learning of their HIV status, Liz found strength in the midst of her grief. And I’m proud of her for it. 

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