On September 20, 1987, Joe Muriuki, the first Kenyan to go public on his HIV status, was told he had only three months to live. He was, according to his doctors, going to die in or before January the following year.
30 years later, as the country marked Aids@30, Muriuki was still going strong; he was, in fact, pursuing a PhD at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.
He is a part-time lecturer at Kenya Methodist University, Masinde Muliro University and Mount Kenya University.
In May 2006, Muriuki came face to face with first-hand stigmatisation at the US Embassy.
“I had travelled to the US when they stamped my Visa as HIV positive, warned me against having sex while on US soil, not take any medication from the US and warned me against extending my stay there even for a day,” says Muriuki. The US has since reviewed its laws on HIV-positive visitors.
Back home, Muriuki was to be later rejected in his home in Nyeri County when he was allegedly denied a job despite his academic qualifications. “I had the relevant professional and academic qualifications, beating my competitors in the race for the job but was ejected because I have Aids,” he says bitterly.
As if that was not enough, he applied and was called for a job interview in Embu County as a permanent secretary in the county but he was knocked out.
“The cases are before the Equity Tribunal and I will pursue them to their logical conclusion to ensure that people living with HIV-Aids are not segregated because of their status,” says Muriuki.
Back to 1987. Muriuki was an accountant at the then Nairobi City Council (NCC). A slight illness put him down and after examination, his personal doctor expressed misgivings about his health condition. “I remember the doctor in his clinic standing up, walking to the window where he stared out for a couple of minutes before he looked like he was sweating,” recalls Muriuki. “For a moment I thought he was mad. I asked him what the matter was and he again stared at me looking confused.”
Then he dropped the bombshell: “Muriuki, you could be HIV positive, and you are the first victim I have come across with the virus.”
His wife was only three weeks pregnant with their third child — which a coterie of doctors advised to abort owing to the fact that the foetus was feared to be infected with the HIV virus. Muriuki would only confirm the doctor’s fears in two hospitals at the time. Mbagathi Hospital and Nairobi Hospital.
Confused, Muriuki broke the devastating news to his wife. “Mysteriously, she urged we pray to God because AIDs then was like Ebola today,” says Muriuki.
They took their blood samples to Mbagathi Hospital which had to send them to South Africa for actual testing and confirmation of their status.
Half a year later, Muriuki was confirmed to be HIV positive but his wife was negative.
His in-laws, on learning about the family’s situation, called for the break-up of the marriage in order to “save” their daughter. “It was the most logical thing for them to do at the time but my wife stuck to me. She refused to leave and said she would be with me till I die,” says Muriuki. Meanwhile, doctors were urging them to terminate the pregnancy.
At the same time, the doctors said that the wife was also HIV positive and she was only going through a window period during which medical tests would not reveal her HIV status.
Worse off, Muriuki was told that he had only three months to live. Husband and wife got stuck in a miasma of desperation. “We decided not kill our child, and my wife assured me of her companionship, up to and beyond the three months I was told I had to live,” says Muriuki. He abandoned his duties at the NCC, packed his bags and together with the family, relocated back to their rural home in Nyeri.
“Everybody was looking at me like an alien when they learnt of my status and even at work, my chair had to be thrown away,” he says, adding that “I, therefore, decided to travel home to Nyeri to go and die there.” At one time, he faced rejection a a local bank.
Muriuki had gone to open a bank account but when the attendant learnt of his status, he even refused to take his details and referred him to the branch manager. Ultimately, the bank declined to open a bank account for him because he was “going to die anyway”.
According to Muriuki, it was very traumatising because at the time, HIV was only associated with homosexuals and people of loose morals.
“However, I was not a homosexual and it stunned me a lot that I had the virus. It was a serious misfortune on my part as I waited for my death,” remembers Muriuki. But three months down the line, Muriuki never died. In fact, his health condition was stable and after an extra three months, he started doubting the doctors’ contentions.
“I decided to give myself two extra years within which I sure knew I would die,” says Muriuki.
Their son was then born and he was HIV negative. “It is then that I realised the very many misconceptions around the condition,” he says.
Muriuki moved to form “Know Aids Society” to educate the whole country about the condition. Today, Muriuki is almost 60 years and he hopes to graduate with a PhD in May 2015.