Doreen Moraa Mochaba was born HIV-positive. The 25-year-old contracted the virus from her mother.
“She was HIV positive but my father was HIV negative,” says Doreen. “We don’t know if I got it during birth or through breastfeeding.”
Her parents have lived as a discordant couple for over 30 years now and have had five children. “We are now four because the fourth born succumbed to HIV/Aids in 1999. I am the third-born in the family,” she says.
Doreen learnt she was HIV positive in 2005, at age 13. At the time, she was preparing for her KCPE exams. Her parents had kept her diagnosis a secret for five years because they feared that she was too young to cope.
That year, Doreen and her mother became sickly. Her mother ended up hospitalised in a coma. Doreen had a blistering shingles on the left side of her face that were spreading towards her eye. “I had lost weight and looked sickly, while my mother was in and out of hospital before the coma,” she says. After a series of tests, Doreen was diagnosed with herpes zoster – a viral disease that results in painful rashes and blisters – and admitted at Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH).
“I was not very alarmed when the doctors at KNH told me that I was HIV positive. At my tender age, this sounded like good news. This was because we would regularly take trips from our home in Chebilat at the Sotik and Borabu border to Nairobi for treatment and medicines. My mum would buy me sweets and other gifts. That I would also not need to take injections was music to my ears,” she says.
Doreen began to realise the impact of the virus when she joined secondary school. “I had really worked hard and gotten an admission at a boarding school. My parents, though, said that I would be joining a nearby day school where they would monitor me,” she says.
Her parents were afraid that teachers and students would find out she was HIV positive and stigmatise her.
But Doreen was so adamant that she wanted to have her secondary education in a boarding school that her parents caved in and in Form Two, they took her to Tala Girls in Machakos. They agreed on how she could sneak in her antiretrovirals. “They told me to lie that I had a heart condition if any student raised questions,” says Doreen.
Doreen completed Form Four and was hoping to train as an air hostess. “When I went to apply for my course, the receptionist at the aviation school told me that I could never be an air-hostess because I had a scar on the left side of my face,” she says.
Disappointed, she changed her career choice and decided to go for a TV and radio broadcast course in hope that she could become a radio presenter.
She was dissuaded by her uncle who worked in the media industry. He cautioned her that once she got into radio and started making headway, people would start to dig up her life, discover that she had HIV, and result to mockery, stigmatisation, and mud-slinging. “This crushed me,” she says.
Word began to spread of a Tanzanian herbalist-cum-witchdoctor who had discovered a drug that cured all diseases including HIV/Aids. “All you had to do was take a Sh100 concoction which was claimed to cure every ailment,” she says. Doreen and her mother joined the hundreds of people flocking Loliondo, in June 2011. The whole journey cost them Sh20,000.
“We were told that there was no need to continue taking our antiretroviral drugs. We were healed, Babu said!” But a few weeks after returning home, Doreen’s mother started getting sick as opportunistic diseases had a field day. “My mum suggested that we take a test to see if Babu’s mug had healed us but I refused. Deep down, I was afraid that my result would come out positive again. I didn’t know if I could survive it,” she says. Her mother came back with a positive result. She told Doreen that Babu was a conman and asked her to resume taking her medication. “I said I would but I didn’t. For the next two years, I turned my back on my anti-retrovirals as depression and desperation overwhelmed me,” she says. “I felt hopeless and just wanted my life to come to an end,” she says.
Between 2014 and 2015, she was taken to Machakos Level 5 Hospital and Kericho District Hospital where she received treatment and counselling. “This was my turning point. It dawned on me that it was not so much that I had HIV, but how well I wanted to mould my life. I decided not to let desperation and depression take me down,” says Doreen, who now works with a website development company in Nairobi.
While she has dated like any other woman, dating has not been easy. “Dating lays the burden of disclosure solely on your shoulders,” she says. Over the past few years, Doreen has loved, been loved, heartbroken and broken hearts in equal measure. “There are relationships that have ended even before they solidly set off because of my status. There are others that have terminated due to reasons other than my status,” she says. “I don’t believe that I am limited to a cadre of less worthy men simply because I’m HIV positive. I go for the finest, and if it is not working, I let it go. I have dreams to be successful, have my own family and raise my own children. Most of all, I have a dream that someday, the stigma and negative perceptions around persons living with HIV shall be no more,” she says.