By EUGENE YIGA
Everyone has a story. And one of the most moving stories I came across in my trip to Kenya was that of a Maasai tribeswoman.
“My name is Peris,” she says. “I’m the mother of five children. I was brought up just like other girls but was married off at age 13.”
Her father brought home a “very big gentleman” and told Peris to go with him. Only when she got to his house did she find out she was now his wife. Her refusal to accept him and her resistance to perform her ‘spousal duties’ led to severe abuse.
“It was difficult,” she recalls. “I continued having problems. I had marks all over my body from the beatings.”
After three months, she ran away and travelled 70km back home on foot. Her father was furious and wouldn’t listen to her protests. He demanded that she either go back to her husband or else live in the forest. She chose the latter and ended up staying with a few other girls who had also rebelled against their parents. It was during this time that she became pregnant. She didn’t know what was happening to her body and sought refuge from her grandmother, who hosted her until she gave birth to her first son. But her father still wouldn’t welcome her back. This is how she found herself back in the forest and how she became pregnant three more times.
“I knew something was different with the last one,” she says of her fifth pregnancy. “I felt sick. But the doctor couldn’t tell me what I was suffering from. It continued until it was time to give birth but I still didn’t know what was wrong.”
More than that, the people in her life didn’t even know she was pregnant. Instead, with nobody to take care of her, she gave birth by herself. And while she didn’t want it known that she had another child, one of her other children told a neighbour. At first, her daughter was breastfeeding well. But after about five months, the baby started getting sick and dangerously thin. The doctors said it was malnutrition but Peris knew this wasn’t true.
“Even before the baby recovered, I also got sick,” she says. “One of my friends took us to the Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi. They put me and the baby in separate wards.”
The isolation was difficult. Nobody came to visit her during her stay and the only friends she had were the other patients. Worse, when it was time to leave, she had no means of paying the massive bill.
“I said I would work to pay it off,” she recalls. “They refused to give me a job. But because I was well, they thought it was time to tell me what the baby and I were suffering from. They took me to a counselling room and told me that we were HIV-positive.”
The news came as a shock. All Peris knew about HIV/AIDS was that it was “a killer disease” and that she was going to die. Because her children had nobody else, she started worrying about how they would survive without her. She wouldn’t stop crying but the doctors eventually calmed her down. They also realised that she would never be able to pay the bill so they just let her go. When she got home, her father asked what was wrong with her and why she was in the hospital for so long. She told him she was HIV-positive. At the time, the disease was associated with prostitution and the stigma was that people with HIV/AIDS shouldn’t mix with others. As a result, she was ostracised by the community. Worse, she was almost killed in a brutal attack.
“My father sent my brothers to kill me,” she says. “But my children came to my rescue. They took me up to the road and tried to stop the vehicles. We were lucky when a car stopped and offered to take me back to the hospital.”
The doctors remembered her and agreed to treat her. But they insisted she report the incident to the police first. She did so, which resulted in her father and brothers being sentenced to jail terms of seven-years each. But she insisted that they let her father go. Later, she insisted that they let her brothers go too and promised not to seek revenge.
“I went on with life but nobody was talking to me or wanted to mix with my children at all,” she says. “I was tired of that life so I left home with my children, not knowing where I was going.”
Peris found herself in Ngong, a town southwest of Nairobi. It was here that she met a fellow Maasai woman named Elizabeth, who offered to help with the children. Elizabeth also introduced her to a training centre for women with HIV/AIDS run by One Horizon, an experiential travel company and a not-for-profit humanitarian aid organisation.
“I was welcomed by the other ladies,” she recalls. “Hearing their stories made me feel at home and that there was hope.”
Peris got four years of accommodation and food from One Horizon and took part in a training programme. While her children were put into school, she learned how to sew and make candles but focused on jewellery-making, an area she excelled in.
“It’s holistic training that works on body and mind,” explains Colin Murray, founder and CEO of One Horizon. “We teach them things about health as well as vocational training. We try to turn their thinking around so that they can be proud of themselves. We make them see that they’re not victims and that they have a place in society.”
Little by little, Peris used the money she saved from the jewellery sales (which also fund the programme) to purchase her own land. It is secured with a title deed so that she can’t be thrown off.
“There’s still prejudice about being HIV-positive,” Colin admits. “But times have changed with education about HIV/AIDS. And she’s been more accepted into the community because she’s come back as a success. It’s an enormous journey.”
And yet the journey is just getting started. Despite the challenge of low rainfall, Peris cultivates a garden that she tends to for a few hours each morning. She’s also continued to save money and is eager to have her home connected to electricity so that she can use the fridge, microwave, and sewing machine she bought.
“I’m grateful to One Horizon for the change,” she says. “I’m happy now and life is good. Nobody is bothering me. I’m telling people to stop spreading the stigma. I’m reaching out to other women and telling them that suffering from HIV/AIDS is not the end of the world. You can live a normal and healthy life just like any other woman.”