Next month as we plan to observe world HIV and AIDS day we want to tell the story of the late Margaret Richards Odero who was on the front line to come out and accept her status and never let it put her down.
“Hey, my name is Maggie. I am here to give you my story my beautiful story…” she said.
Maggie was born 24 years ago and did not get to meet her biological parents but fortunately, life gave her a second set of parents who she loved and adored. While growing up, she noticed, that after being taken to a boarding school (in class 6) that she was a sick kid all the time.
“My health started taking a different direction. Two weeks into my new school, I woke up one morning and had severe chest pains. I was scared to come out and say that I was sick,” she said.
Like every kid, she remained silent since she was shy until it got worse and one of her teachers noticed and summoned her to the head teacher’s office immediately, who called her mom, who almost came immediately. She was then rushed to the hospital. A few weeks later, she was better and her mom was hesitant to take her back to school. She had missed her siblings aka the triplets, as she would call them, as inseparable they were.
Less than two weeks, she woke up with not just chest pains but also sores all over her mouth. She could not eat nor brush her teeth or speak. Each time she tried to brush her teeth, it was hard as pus would ooze out but many thought she was just homesick.
“I was reluctant because I had just come from home and now I will be complaining again, so I stayed for three days. I survived on water and milk alone. My desk mate however noticed that I was not okay so immediately, he grabbed my hand without a word and stormed me to the head teacher’s office ” (he was a rude caring boy though).
He said, “Call her mom or she will die here,” he said.
Since the mum was held up, the dad came in no time and she was taken to Aga Khan and was given antibiotics to help with the sores. One week later, there was still no improvement so her mum used to take her along to work.
“One day as she was working from the car, her friend noticed and came to say hi. Mum narrated to her what was happening and she told my mom to take me to Nairobi Women’s Hospital without delay,” she said.
The next day, she was taken, and all along she knew her mum was her biological mom but as she was narrating to the doctors she said that she was Maggie’s aunt, that is her mother’s sister. She was confused and was asked to step out as the doctor was talking to her mom.
“A few moments later, she was out and I was taken to the laboratory where I had the doctor telling the technician to do a CD4 test. I never understood and mum was clearly not ready to talk,” she said.
30 minutes later, the doctor came and she needed no meds since her CD4 was good. She was therefore given more antibiotics for her sore throat and they left. The second term having been wasted, she went back to school for her third term. One Friday morning, she decided to ask her science teacher what a CD4 test was and at first, he was puzzled.
“Where did you hear that from?” He asked.
“From a doctor to another,” she innocently lied.
He explained that it is a test done mostly by patients who are HIV-positive. She had so many questions in her mind that night she said to herself,
“Maggie you are positive and there’s nothing you can do about that so live to the fullest.”
Life did not get any better for her as she was in and out of school during her primary education. She, later on, joined a high school near her home since her dad was against her going far from home, especially after her struggles in primary school. During her first term, she thought that things had gone okay with just a little illness. Things went from 100 to 0 in a snap of the fingers. Second term she became so sick that at times she thought she would not make it. Her mum chose to let her remain at home. One night she overheard her mom conversing about taking her to the clinic and her sister’s name was mentioned. So the next day, she was told to get ready as they were going to the clinic. This she ready knew but she acted dumb.
“Mum I am not sick, why are we going to the clinic again?” she asked.
“Just get in the car we will talk later,” her mom answered.
They arrived at the clinic and her mom said she would see them soon so she went in with her sister. In the hospital room came three doctors and she joked,
“Are you guys going to perform surgery?”
They all laughed then one of them came to draw some blood for The CD4 test. After a while, the results came in and one doctor looked at them and shook his head passing it to the other doctor without saying a word. Her CD4 had dropped from 364 to 11 that man she only had 11 white blood cells in her body. The doctors were telling her quite a lot about HIV-related stuff and she was learning quite a few.
“What would you do if one day you found out you were positive?” one of them asked her.
Smiling she responded, “Nothing, just live with it like any other normal person.”
First, the doctors were shocked.
“Doctor I know I have it, just tell me how I am to take my drugs and I will gladly take them,” she said.
The doctors did not understand and kept on asking, ’Are you okay?’
All this time, her sister was on the verge of breaking down, and eventually, she did but Maggie kept on telling her that she was going to be okay. That is how much Maggie was ready to fight the virus. The doctors were relieved and confused at the same time but at least they did not have to deal with the pressure of breaking the news to a 15-year-old.
Things were OK until early 2014 when she started experiencing stigma. One evening, she was just putting her desk in order and stepped out a little bit only to come back and find her stuff scattered around. She was both confused and shocked.
“So I try finding out what is going on end my hospital card which I use for normal clinic gets thrown at me and boom I stormed out and cried. Some minutes later I came back and I did not have a deskmate………..
……..The stories I got from my classmates were worrying as no one was saying anything to me. I put my stuff together in order and sat alone like a lone ranger,” she said.
She buried her head pretending to be reading that night but deep down she wished the world would swallow her whole.
“Preps were over and as we were heading to bed, I had no bed mate, this broke my heart into a million pieces, “she said.
The gossip of her status became so traumatizing to the point she would cry herself to sleep every night. The following morning, she rushed to class and decided since she doesn’t want to bother anyone she said alone. The first teacher came in and noticed she was far from the rest.
“Margaret, why are you so far in the last game here you had a desk mate?” she asked.
Everyone in the class burst out laughing. She couldn’t hold it anymore and she broke down and dashed out of class. The teacher ran after her but she was too ashamed to even say what was happening. She skipped classes for the rest of the day as she kept on crying. That night she had a terrible migraine and the nurse called the director who called her mother to come to pick her up. The entire drive back home was full of silence. She stayed home for a week then came back to school she decided to make a bad decision.
“I decided to hell with everything the people, the education, even drugs,” she said.
Since previously she took and kept her medicine with the school nurse she took them and kept them in her box since they disgusted her and she had started passing herself since the stigma was too much for a kid, just a 16-year-old girl.
For three years, she never took her drugs. She fell into depression and started stress eating. She weighed 78 kg forcing the doctors to tell her to cut her weight since her height and weight ratio was worrying. She started having suicidal thoughts and was always angry at herself. Her viral load was 1,000,000+ but still, she had given up and never cared. At home, she put on a brave face and hid the pain with a smile on her face.
“I was the talk of school my entire high school life but on the positive side none of my stuff would be stolen because who even dared to even touch my stuff, “she said
People thought she would infect them even by touch. Upon completion of high school, she failed terribly.
“When the results were out, I stared at them for a long time and asked myself if that is what I wanted for myself,” she said.
A week later, she told her parents she had decided to go back to school and promised to do better and has supportive parents to come back to school, not the same one though, and it was there that things took a better complete turn, thanks to Ihumumba hospital and their staff.
At the hospital, she became appreciative as she was taught more to what she knew about HIV and started embracing life as it was. Things started getting worse after a while as she couldn’t breathe and most of the time she was hospitalized the gossip started again and she stopped taking her drugs.
In 2019, she started taking her drugs religiously, with no defaults, and her health improved and she became happier in gained more confidence. She started telling a story on small platforms and especially on World AIDS Day.
Ihumumba gave her a friend who was also positive and they supported each other till her health picked up Until 2020 September she received the news of her passing, one Sunday morning. Her heart was shuttered. She became the reason why she, Maggie, Wanted to end stigma because he was stigmatized and give up, and nobody should die because of HIV, stigma kills, and HIV is manageable.
“I met this guy, Joe wa Kibra. He was soft-spoken but after a series of failed relationships in severe character development, I was busy ignoring his advances,” she said.
To push him away, she open up about her status But he never ran away he was determined.
“I am stuck with you for life,” he would say.
Deep down she knew he was going to give up and in 2020, he went missing with no calls, no messages, nothing and she knew she was right all along. He came back in 2021, this time more serious. He became persistent and she saw some honesty in him. One day she asked about her health and she was touched that he even remembered…..Joe became the reason for her smile.
Sadly, Maggie passed away over a year ago. The story has been told over and over but one thing that noting is, she spent some part of her life trying to end the stigma.
Stigma can kill a person slowly and effectively. People living with HIV/AIDS are normal human beings and can live many more years, even outliving people who are HIV-negative.
What song comes to mind, “Avuta pumpz by The Longbas” which goes ‘Na kama uko nayo sio mwisho wa maisha,ni ugonjwa tu kama malaria, meza dawa, piga tizi, kula vizuri, utaishi fiti na maisha utayasukuma…….’
(And if you have it, it is not the end of the world. It is a disease such as malaria, take your medicine, do exercise and you will live well)
The virus is manageable. We need to make peace with the fact that it is not going anywhere. People need to be religious about taking drugs. We, as the world, have lost too many young people to this disease and I personally believe we can do better.
Some ways in which one can get infected include;
Mother to child during birth and or breast-feeding
Sharing of sharp objects such as tattoo needles in syringes
Sharing of body fluids (especially sharing of sexual partners)
And to those not infected taking precautions should be mandatory for you. Some of the preventive measures include;
Abstaining from sexual activities
Always use a condom.
Avoiding sharing shop objects such as tattoo needles in syringes
If you are positive, and you need help, or you are battling depression, hospitals have therapists and social workers with whom one can talk. No need to go around spreading it due to revenge or committing suicide.
In the event you know anyone infected, you do not need to go around gossiping and tormenting them. They are all our brothers and sisters and we are in the year 2022, HIV and AIDS education has become embroidered into our education system so I asked us to help stop stereotypes and rumours when it comes to HIV/AIDS. You can still have a normal love life just as Maggie did.
This year during World AIDS Day, let us take our friends relatives, and family to get tested. Knowing your status early helps to manage the virus and also helps to avoid spreading it.
Let us get out and get tested. Let us end HIV/AIDS Related deaths due to stigmatization and false information. Let us save lives. Remember it is not the virus that kills, the virus can be managed, and it is how you managed counts.