A strong stench of raw sewage, crowded tin houses, dilapidated roads and hordes of weather-beaten faces welcomes us to the heart of Mathare slums in Nairobi. In the crowd, we spot Beatrice beaming with joy. She walks towards us, her gait radiating strength, the only hint of her condition being the slight limp on her left. Beatrice is a strong woman who has defied great odds. Being able to stand on both feet is nothing short of a miracle.
My friends and I are here to visit Beatrice, a woman who has defied death. She leads us through a narrow street with makeshift structures lined on the side. She asks us to hide all valuables as we walk past a group of five young men looking at us suspiciously. We later learn that they are members of one of the most dreaded criminal gangs that operate in the slum. They run all kinds of illicit trades, cause mayhem and impose a ‘protection fee’ on households and businesses.
We finally arrive at her place on the bank of a heavily polluted stream. It is a great house by local standards- complete with a broken toilet, single electric bulb, and a communal tap. Never mind the fact that water only runs on Saturday night. We all pile into her minuscule living quarters, separated from her ‘bedroom’ by some old bed sheet. She is so happy to have visitors over and even reveals that it makes her momentarily forget all her troubles.
After exchanging pleasantries, she begins to recount her sad life story. Beatrice is a mother of three boys. The first and second born are in high school while the youngest is in lower primary. Her troubles began 14 years ago when she tested HIV+ (positive).
Like all newly tested positive people, she had to make a tough decision- whether to keep it a secret or go public about it. She chose the latter, a tough pick since back in the late 90’s society ostracized anyone who was HIV positive. News of her HIV status spread like wildfire all through the slum. Within no time, the people she used to hang out with would huddle together, point fingers and call her names. ‘
Ako na mdudu they would say. They then began segregating her. Friends disappeared. Neighbors would whisper in hushed tones whenever she passed by. No one wanted to shake her hand worse still, dine with her. They believed that anyone infected with HIV/AIDS was receiving punishment from God for being promiscuous.
Preachers from all over the city claimed to have a solution to her plight. All that she needed to do was ‘plant a seed’ and have faith. Despite receiving lengthy prayers and diligently planting numerous seeds, her HIV status remained unchanged.
I ask about her family. Her eyes revealing an obvious longing for the much-needed love, she tells of how her mother is yet to come to terms with her condition. The mother claims to be busy whenever she is bedridden and needs special care. Since she cannot bend, a selfless woman who happens to be a neighbor helps with the house chores. Another young man refills her water jerrycans weekly out of sheer benevolence.
On inquiring of her limping, she is overcome by emotion and breaks down to tears. The ladies in our group embrace her in an effort to console her. The Gor Mahia sticker on her cupboard grabs my attention and I query her about it. This indeed succeeds in getting her mind off her predicament. Smiling again, she passionately speaks of her kids’ undying love for this Kenyan football club. They are also into Taekwondo. The youngest one even has a red belt.
The eldest son studies and stays with a family in Murang’a County. The benign family took him in when she fell ill. He was forced to repeat a class as he had studied for less than a month for the entire academic year. This altruistic young man had spent all that time nursing his mother as no one else was there for her.
After regaining composure, she speaks about her cancer. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer in December 2011. Since then, she has been receiving medication from a medical facility sponsored by the Medicine Sans Frontiesres (MSF) in Mathare. She is on a list of those awaiting surgery to take out her ovaries. What frustrates her most is that she doesn’t know when this will happen and take away the unbearable pain. Sometimes after meals, her stomach swells. Goiter is not making things any easier. During her last visit to the doctor, she learned that the wound in her uterus is now 16 cm wide and chances of recovery are slim once it gets to 20 cm.
Before cancer, she could buy feminine accessories like handbags, and decorate them with beads before selling them out at a profit. She would also visit other women living with HIV/AIDS and encourage them to live on positively. Having been bedridden for a greater part of the year, her business has been severely affected. She can no longer work to fend for her family or pay her bills. She now relies on well-wishers for food. Her rent is two months overdue. In fact, the proprietor had sent someone to evict her the previous week. Sympathetic to her quandary, he allowed her one more week to pay up the arrears.
We unpack the foodstuff and toiletries we had brought and filled the empty shelves. We then raise some cash among ourselves to settle her overdue debts and revive her accessories business. She is so grateful for the kind gesture and thanks us profusely. We promise to spread the word about her condition and find people to sponsor her children’s education.
After sharing some words of encouragement and prayers, she walks us back to the bus stop. We boarded a bus and head back to town. Waving through the window, I see tears running down her cheeks. I only hoped that this time they are tears of joy.
Written By Mark Maish