Angela: An Experience of Resilience and Determination to Live

“If I was to tell everything about myself, I would write a novel of more than a thousand pages, but I just want you to have this preview…” starts the ever lovely and jovial 25-year old Angela Mutwang’ (fondly known to many as Angie), with hopes that young people of her generation will one day hear from her first-hand and witness what an experience she has had fighting to live.

12th December 2006 is a day Angela says she will never forget, not only because it’s the day her country Kenya achieved independence many decades past, but because it was also the day she began a new chapter in her life. She was recuperating from a serious illness at home in Kisumu city when she decided to take an HIV test.

Prior to this day, Angela’s mother had persistently suggested that she should take the HIV test. The reasons for this suggestion were unclear and even worrying, given that her mum is a career nurse. On several occasions, her mum said in Kiswahili: “Angela, si tupime HIV? hizi rashes zinafanana na za mgonjwa mwingine tuko naye huko kwa ward na ako na HIV” (Angela, why don’t we test HIV? these rashes on your body are very similar to those of a patient we have in the ward and he has HIV).

But Why the HIV Test?
This question would not cease lingering and nagging Angela’s inner self. Her mum wanted her to test for HIV because the kind of rashes on her skin resembled those of a patient they had in the hospital who was HIV positive. Angela however, definitely disagreed for she had just graduated from High School and had never had sexual intercourse, had never been a drug addict and had no history of rape, sexual defilement in her childhood or any known exposure to the virus. How else would she have acquired the deadly virus?

Thanking God that her mama did not force her to take the HIV test, Angela finally gave it a benefit of doubt and decided on her own to visit a testing centre. It was her first time visiting a Voluntary Counseling and Testing centre and she received straight positive result for all three rapid tests that were conducted. Angela wasn’t astonished by the result. She remained calm! Well, this could sound like fiction of sorts but in her own words she says, “…it was like I had received malaria test results. I have never understood why that horrible news didn’t move me.” She went to her mum at the hospital where she worked as a nurse and broke the news of her HIV status. They immediately went to the laboratory and she was retested and her mum also took the test. Angela was still HIV positive but her mama was negative. This cleared any possibility of having acquired the virus from her mother. The two of them sat at the hospital lounge and had a lengthy talk.

“She was witty. She told me it was as a result of a blood transfusion I had way back when I was only 2 years old, I was living with my maternal grandparents in Homabay when I fell critically ill and had to be transfused. It turned out that since then I was always in poor health. Mum had suspected the blood had not been screened. Being a nurse, the only thing she was left with was to take good care of me because she wasn’t strong enough to confirm her fears,” recounts Angela. “Mum said at the time I was growing up, HIV was so expensive to manage. It had just been discovered in Kenya and she was still a nursing student at Kenya Medical Training College.”

Back to the reality of the moment, Angela’s CD4-cell count was at 311. A normal count is in the range of 800-1600. She now felt the reality of the killer disease in her blood and was certain she was dying slowly. She felt frustrated, stressed and distressed. Something really urgent had to be done. Angela was immediately enrolled into Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART) at Kisumu District Hospital. Whenever she went for the adherence sessions she would spend the whole time crying bitterly and asking questions that no one could logically and satisfactorily answer. As a result, Angela was referred to Tuungane Youth Centre of Impact Research & Development Organization, a youth friendly health centre which manages HIV related cases among young people of up to 21 years of age. At Tuungane Centre, her CD4 cell count was taken again and this time round, it had dropped drastically to 255. “I was even more frustrated and stressed. I slipped into depression. I knew I was dying soon,” she says.

Soon afterwards – thanks to top notch professionalism, warmth and palliative care she received at Tuungane – Angie got so well acquainted with her new family that she even got a part time job there. Earlier on, Angie had vehemently resisted her parents’ calls to take her for higher education. She thought she would but waste her parents’ fees and die all the same. This position was to change when her mum told her she would be able to access some vital hospital information and even sue the hospital where she was transfused contaminated blood, if she studied some course in college. Angie was thus convinced to join Medical School to study Medical Records and Information Technology just to revenge. She was raging with the urge to hit back. Her resentment had steadily evolved into bitterness. She was irked and was waiting for just the right time to launch the search for those who did her this injustice when she was only a little angel.

After joining Kenya Medical training College, Angela’s Christian virtues in which she had been brought up came alive. She recalls, “I joined college but in the course of my studies, I realized God had a much deeper purpose for me than revenge. He had been so faithful to me and given me life for all the years I lived with the deadly virus. Eventually, I gave up on revenging and instead focused on Christ. I made a conscious decision to live positively. Hard as it was, forgiving those who did me this injustice made me even a stronger warrior!”

Needless to mention, young people living with HIV in Kenya and Africa at large come face to face with the cold reality of stigma and discrimination, fear, ignorance, hatred and cruelty. Angela was discriminated against right from home by neighbors and relatives, friends in school and worse to imagine, even in the church. Many preferred to look at her as having been promiscuous when she was still a virgin! They didn’t care to know the moving story behind her condition.

Although Angela has learned to deal with the social ills she faces almost daily, she still finds it difficult to be ever taking drugs. If her mother doesn’t remind her to take medication, sometimes she won’t remember to do so. She is also poor at eating and this sometimes makes her really weak especially in the wake of drugs. Perhaps the greatest of the impediments that Angie has faced is that of access to medication in management of opportunistic infections. Many are the times she is taken ill with pneumonia, TB or other respiratory complications. One other thing that Angela doesn’t like talking about is her love life. She says she denies herself the opportunity of falling in love and sustaining a relationship. She notes this phobia must be a result of self stigma of sorts but in a quick rejoinder and with a beautiful smile, she promises herself to work on it.

My perception of myself…
Asked what she thinks about her status and her life, Angela goes completely inspirational. One could not help but marvel at what encouraging words came out of a person whose life was once rocked with self-pity, bitterness and resentment.
“God’s ways are not our ways; I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” says Angie. “God will not throw at me what I cannot bear. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me! This I deeply believe. I also believe that knowing my status was the best thing that ever happened to me and surely, my status is a blessing to me and scores others whom I inspire to fight on.”

Over and over again Angela prayed, “Lord, let this cup pass for it is too much for me”, but only several months later she discovered for herself that she could actually manage it. She only needed the positive will, which she got. “Now it has been nearly 24 years since my infection. I am still here, still working, still living, still learning how to love,” she reflects.

Sometime back, Angela could count the number of pills she had to take in a week, 14 assorted tablets! She goes to her doctor for reviews and assures him that she’s feeling quite well. Not few are the times the doctor mutters words to himself as he rereads the latest laboratory results which show her immunity declining towards zero. Nevertheless she fights on for her Christian up bringing has taught her that God is always present with her. This thought she says comforts her and gives her much hope.

Angela is deeply pained when young people living with the virus are stigmatized an ill-treated. She quotes a story in the Holy Bible in the book of Matthew where someone asks Jesus,
“When, Lord, did we ever see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we ever see you a stranger and welcome you in our homes?”

Jesus replies, “I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least of these, you did it for me.” On a light note, Angela adds, “I still harbor a childlike desire to really see Jesus, talk with Him, and ask Him a few questions concerning my life…”

Angela admits her life has been greatly impacted by people who have stood out to show her great love and care, people who have prayed with and for her in time of need. She says these acts have not been of men but it’s God Himself who has been working through them.

“God is omnipresent,” says Angela, “He is not only in the church, but also in the person sitting next to me on the bench on Saturday, He is in my parents and friends who have shared tears with me on more than one occasion, He is in Maurice who is helping me to share my story with the whole world, only to inspire someone, and He can be in you today if you choose to do that single act of kindness to someone living with the virus!” This statement particularly got me thinking…

My Piece of Advice
Asked what snippet of advice she would give to young people struggling with her kind of situation, Angie again quotes from her favorite book and source of inspiration, the Holy Bible. She says, “Let your weakness be your strength, simple!” She particularly mentions the book of Romans 8:18: “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us…”

She notes with concern that many people are afraid of facing facts and prefer only to shelve in cocoons of comfort. This she says is wrong and should be unlearnt if a successful combat against HIV/AIDS is to be waged. She says only a few people have saved a life when everyone actually has the potent to do so.

“They may not have saved a child from a burning building, neither may they have even pulled a drowning person out of the swollen river, notes Angela, “but – when so many are so afraid and even dread talking to people living with the virus – they sit next to me, they shake my hand, they hug me, you know. They tell me they love me so much and that, if they could, they would do anything to make it easier for me. Knowing people like this has made my life a daily miracle! You can save a life, too. That life may only be a few months, or a year, or two years long, but you can save it just as surely as if you had reached into the river and pulled out someone who was drowning.”

In her parting shot, Angela looks straight into my eyes and says, “You will be called upon to grieve; yet, you will know you have made a difference in someone’s life in this world. Then you will realize you have gained more than you could ever have given.”

Deep and powerful inspiration do we draw from this moving experience of one young girl living in poverty stricken, under-developed country. This is a story of resilience and determination to beat all odds and just live. Yet, as I love to do, I challenge you: have you saved a life?

By Ongala Maurice