"I was acting happy, oohing and ahhing at the right moments to my friend's stories. But inside, I was in turmoil. I had just tested positive for HIV and was devastated. I didn't know what to do, or how to tell my friend that I had tested positive. I was in a daze," Florence Anam, 38, an advocacy and communication officer at The International Community of Women Living with HIV (ICW) recalls. That was 11 years ago, in 2006, when she tested positive for HIV.
But looking at her beaming smile now, it's hard for one to imagine her as a woman who has been touched by despair. Her walk is brisk, her demeanor friendly, and her laughter true. She is a woman who has her life together, who lives a life that she enjoys. In past interviews, she's boldly proclaimed that HIV hasn't stopped her from enjoying sex...and life. She's passionate about playing a role that helps better the lives of women living with HIV in Kenya and globally.
On that fateful afternoon in 2006 when she went for the test at Kenyatta National Hospital she had been thinking of it as a mere formality. "At the time, there were plenty of HIV sensitization campaigns going on and I felt that it would be good to get tested, just to confirm that I was negative. A friend had asked me to accompany her for her testing and I thought "why not get tested too?" I didn't even entertain the idea that I might be HIV positive."
In hindsight, she feels like that at some subconscious level, she was worried about her HIV status. She had gotten pregnant right after she finished high school, with a man 'way too old' for her and after the birth of her son she, who had always been chubby, had lost weight really fast. "Additionally, there were little instances where people close to me alluded that there was something wrong with me health wise. For instance, there was a time my mum burst into tears and started telling me to eat well as she was afraid of losing me. My dad would also make such comments when he was upset. In college, guys would say that to have sex with me "one had to wear ten condoms"- which I assumed was because I was a single mother. All these comments left me puzzled and hurt," she says.
At the time she got tested, Florence was in her first job after university and her professional life was in an upswing. Like many young girls, she dreamt of conquering the corporate world. The first thought that came to her mind when she saw the positive test was "How am I ever going to get the job of my dreams now?" She felt like she had failed her parents. "They had taken me to university, even after I had disappointed them by becoming a teenage mother. I had wanted, more than anything, to make them proud of my achievements." Also, she had just reunited with a lover from her campus days and she wondered what would happen to her love life. Needless to say, her world had been upended by the diagnosis. She couldn't see a way out of the darkness she'd been thrust into.
"At some point I just couldn't bear pretending that I was fine anymore. I went to withdraw money from an ATM and it swallowed my card- that was the trigger! I broke down and started crying. I told my friend that my results had been positive and as one can expect, she was very shocked. She tried comforting me but there was only so much she could do," Florence says.
Her boyfriend had invited her to a party later that evening, and determined to continue pretending life was OK, she proceeded to the party. Although she hadn't been planning to tell her boyfriend about her test, she ended up blurting it out to him. "We had been having unprotected sex, so of course he was shocked. But after the initial shock, he was quite supportive. Later, he even accompanied me for follow up tests and counseling that I'd been referred to at Coptic Hospital. He also got tested and his test was negative."
Often, people who have received bad news experience delayed shock. For Florence, it came when she was at work. "I heard something about HIV/AIDs statistics on radio and it hit me that I was now part of those statistics. I started bawling and my boss called me to his office. After some prodding, I ended up confiding in him. He was very understanding."
Florence counts him as one of the key people in how she managed to find a way to live positively again. "He assured me that everything would work out in the end. More importantly, he contacted a priest and told him to give me a call later that evening. That night I was at my lowest. The priest gave me the listening, nonjudgmental ear I needed. I was venting and asking why such a thing would happen to me. He asked me "Why not you?" That was very powerful to me. Yes, I had been having unprotected sex. So why not me? It was that moment when I started accepting my status."
How did she break the news of her HIV status to her family? "In stages. The first person I told in my family was my younger sister. After that it took a year before I could tell anyone else. I told my other sister, then months later I told mother. But at the point of coming out to my mother, I was already working in HIV/AIDS advocacy and was just about to do a newspaper interview. Fortunately, my mother had been attending HIV/AIDs sensitisation workshops and wasn't too shocked. My dad learned about it much later, and I told my son about it when he was eight-years-old. He asked me after he had heard people talking about it and I decided to be honest with him. I had him tested and he was HIV negative."
Did she experience stigma at any point in the process of 'coming out'?
"Of course. In 2007, I got a job as a personal assistant and a health insurance was one of the perks. It was mandatory to get tested for HIV. When the results came out, I found a termination later slipped into my desk drawer. Although they gave excuses like low company resources, I knew I had been fired because of my HIV status. I was deeply hurt."
Without a job, Florence was hit by a wave of depression. "Before that point, my life had basically been the same as before I was tested. I was healthy- my CD4 count was great and I wasn't on any ARVs. I was so angry and sad. I went to church and vented my anger to a pastor. After I had been jobless for months, I wrote an angry letter to Asunta Wagura. Basically, I was asking "Why is my HIV status being used to block me from opportunities?" She called me and later arranged for me to get a job at Kenya Network of Women with AIDS (KENWA).
Florence says that HIV/AIDs stigma still exists. "Only that it has evolved. Now it is more subtle. It's no longer about people not wanting to be in the same room with you or to use the same utensils. It is people making snide remarks, not wanting to associate with you, or assuming you're promiscuous and that you're out to sleep with their partners and infect them."
One thing Florence emphasizes in her advocacy is that HIV doesn't have to spell a death sentence to your sex life. "When I got tested, I didn't think that sex would ever be in the cards for me again. But after almost half a year, the guy I had been seeing contacted me and we had protected sex. We even dated for a while afterwards but I eventually broke it off. Since then I have dated and enjoyed sex with other people."
Because of her work, her HIV status public. This, she says, is both a blessing and a curse. "I wish I could have the choice of when to tell a partner about my status, but now all they have to do is Google my name and there it is."
Looking back, Florence feels that she wouldn't be the person she is today if she wasn't HIV positive. "I used to be a timid girl who just let life happen to her. My experience with HIV has taught me how to take control of my life. I learned to love myself, to be strong, and to stop seeking for validation in the wrong places. I like who I am now."
She reiterates that one can live a long, healthy life with the HIV virus. She is currently on anti-retroviral drugs, which she says make her feel healthy. "My CD4 count has always been great. But currently, every HIV positive person is supposed to be on ARVs. I take only one pill a day, not the cocktail of pills that people used to take in the past. I feel healthy and my skin looks better."
She has a passion for helping people, not only through her advocacy work, but also through mentoring young adults. "I believe the decisions made between the ages of 18 to 24 define one's path in life. That is a delicate age when a teenager transitions into adulthood. It is at that point in my life where I got pregnant and also got infected. I suspect I was infected by my son's father, whom I later learned had died a year after I gave birth. However, my son was negative. I mentor young adults in that age bracket and if I can help even one person transition into adulthood without making the mistakes I did, I will consider myself successful. Coincidentally, my son is now 18, so I'm speaking both as a parent and as someone who has made mistakes and learned from them. I am also currently dating and would like to get married someday. I am not sure about having more kids but I could be persuaded to change my mind," she says with a laugh.