By Jasmine Atieno
Having a lifetime illness is scary. Knowing that you would be on medications in your whole life is not an easy thing. Yet this is what 27-year-old Cleopatra Wanjiku Machira has had to deal with since it was disclosed to her at 13 years that she was HIV positive. Her grandmother had taken her for clinic when a hospital nurse disclosed to her her status.
Immediately, she was put on antiretroviral therapy (ART). It was in 2007 and she was about to sit her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) exams at Karura Primary School, Mathira in Nyeri.
She found herself worrying of what secondary school life would be like.
“I felt different. Children can be unkind you know. When I joined Kiine Girls High School, in Kirinyaga in 2008, I tried my best to adhere to my treatment, but it wasn’t so easy due to the fear of stigmatisation once people saw me taking drugs,” she says.
After her secondary education, Cleopatra decided to pursue a course in Public Health. She joined Mt Kenya University and majored in Community Health and HIV Management though she has been on and off the university for various reasons. In 2013 while still in campus she started volunteering at Thika Level 5 hospital where she got equipped with mentorship skills and later worked with Center for Health Solutions, a nongovernmental organization that mostly focuses on good adherence in the HIV world.
She has had an opportunity of working with National Organisation of Peer Educators, a nongovernmental organisation, which targets vulnerable and marginalised populations in Kenya and East Africa through advocacy and strategic behavioural communication using peerled approaches and other organisations such as Women Fighting Aids in Kenya and Positive Young Women Voices.
It is during one of her sessions out of school that she developed an interest in fashion and design and started training herself. This later became the birth of her business, Pabaa collections in 2017, a cloth line that focuses on African themed attires and beaded accessories.
But in the beginning of 2018, she dropped out of campus because she could not juggle between the growing business and school.
It is in the same year that Cleopatra almost reached breaking point. “I felt like I had had enough of everything and I needed a break, yes a break from the medication and this is exactly what I told my doctor. I wanted to feel free like any other person, lead a normal life and have the freedom to do anything I wanted,” shares a firstborn in a family of six.
“I stopped attending clinic and taking medication. I was tired, exhausted, angry and most probably frustrated. I defaulted for almost a year and my health deteriorated. I remember my friend taking me to hospital where I was put on care again. The very person who gives hope to the discouraged was here being given hope. The health workers were disappointed. I had let them down. I never thought I’d make it, let alone make it out sane, but I did and through it all, I learnt that the human spirit possess strength that each and every one of us has the power to grow through our worst nightmares. Out of their support, I got back in good shape and went back to mentorship and of course achieved my undetectable status, this being my biggest achievement,” she recalls.
In January this year, she started a movement, “The Voice of a Black Child”, a digital platform that serves as a safe space for conversations about things we don’t freely discuss such as mental health, disabilities, failures, HIV treatment and management, disclosure, gender equality, promoting collaboration and advocating for a formal framework to raise awareness.
“Having been born and living with HIV, I have learnt to heal my wounds and I’m now ready to teach others so that we can grow together. On my digital platform, we hold conversations about things that we do not usually talk about. Be it a failed business, relationship, marriage, health, losing a job, a loved one or whatever reason that makes your heart bleed. So many people come to me for encouragement — people are truly going through issues out here. I felt someone somewhere needed to hear my story and that’s why I embraced it with the aim to inspire, motivate, educate and encourage others. The scars you hide are beautiful. Flaunt them. Healing comes from uncovering and addressing your wounds not covering them,” says Cleopatra.
Through all this, she has learnt that in life, two things are real: God and hard work. It is her hope that people will come to understand that HIV doesn’t kill, stigma does, hence it’s upon people to tolerate each and every one in the society
“Normalise putting God first because He never disappoints and no one can curse what He has blessed. It’s unfortunate that many young people are actually suffering from self-stigma. This is where you feel you’re not worthy. Self-love is self-care. Again, the world is cruel, so love yourself,” she says.