Dorothy, age 55 / Nairobi, Kenya


I found out about my HIV status 20 years ago, that was in 1990, I think. And, how I found out is when I had a cough, a persistent cough that didn’t go off. I was given medication for a while. And every time that I stopped medication, the cough would come. And then I had candida, I had, you know, resistant itching in my private parts.

So, when I went back to see my physician, she suggested that I would do a test. But she didn’t tell me it was an HIV test, and in any case, for me, I knew HIV could not get me because I knew I had one partner, and surely, HIV is for THOSE people OUT THERE.

I had a friend who worked at the clinic. And she said, “The doctor has said you go back for your results.” But I told her, “No, Jane. You know what you do? Just get me the result, even if it’s HIV.“  When she insisted, I decided to go. There was this Indian doctor that was taking care of me, who had taken my test.

And, you know, the way she gave me the results was so casual. She told me, “You are HIV positive. But that does not mean you are going to die now. You have six months to go. So, what we can do, you can go to see the dentist and they check your teeth, they check your ears…” And it didn’t occur to me what is the relevance of seeing a dentist. You are HIV-positive, you are dying, they are checking your ears…

I think I just saw darkness. Death was ringing in my head. I didn’t know whether to cry, I didn’t know what to do. I was wondering what was going to happen to my children. They were still in primary, and… Yeah, so many things came through my head. I would wake up and pinch myself and ask myself, “Am I still, um, alive?” I did that for a while, and then I asked myself, “Do dead people pinch themselves?” So I stopped doing that.

What helped me is, I had a friend of mine. And apparently her husband was positive. She had not told me this, but I knew somehow. So one time we went for a drink and I really wanted to share it with somebody. And she told me, “Okay, um, my husband is also positive. Luckily I’m negative. There is this gentleman who came out first in Kenya. He’s called Rollins. And he says he– I know he has medicine that can help. And I can also take you to a herbalist where my husband takes his medication.”

So the following day she took me to this gentleman. And luckily, there was a conference that was coming up in Amsterdam, in 1992, for International AIDS Conference. And he told me, “Okay, there will be a pre-conference for women all over the world. And if you would be interested in going, it will be a very good platform for you to meet other positive women.”  And I said, “I would be very glad to do that.” Because in any case, I was going to die soon, so why not go to Amsterdam for the first time?

So, he arranged for my passport. I went with the wife, the wife who was negative. And really, in my thinking, I thought I was going to meet with women who were emaciated. Because those days in Kenya, they had billboards that showed people who were thin, you know, they were just about to die…

When I went to Amsterdam, it was really interesting. The women were beautiful. They were normal. We shared our stories about our spouses, about our children. About the deaths of our loved ones. And, you know, we laughed and we cried, and I think that was the beginning of everything for me.

They said, “Go back home and mobilize. And talk to as many women as possible.” And I did, I started an organization, which is doing very well now, and so many women have been empowered. They have gotten married, they have gone back to school, they have had babies. And it really makes me happy. Yeah. Yeah.

My life is normal. I mean, really it doesn’t bother me about HIV-status, probably unless I have a cough, but… I go out with my friends, I love dancing, I do things that I like. I have relationships, and… I am open about my HIV-status. If I have a relationship, the first thing that I’ll tell you is my HIV-status, you take it or leave it.

Where we come from in Africa, it’s believed that a woman over 50 really does not engage in sex. You have given birth and there, you know, you need to rest. And surely we are human beings. I’m sexually active, and if I need a relationship I should be able to meet a man that, that… you know?

And then they make fun and say, “Okay, how can I be removing a grandmother’s panty to have sex!” And this is your own husband or partner telling you this, because you are over 50. THEY are over 50, but life has to continue! But your panty as a grandmother cannot be removed!  And you can see how beautiful I am at 55, and sexually active, and I need somebody to love me! Yeah.

Even the women themselves who are old believe that they are not risky, that they don’t engage in risky behaviors, and therefore they don’t use protectives. Socially, I think you are neglected. I mean, you are outdated, so, we are thinking about the young ones who are coming up now, but not over 50’s.

I keep myself really busy, at work. I have gone back to school. I don’t have time in between where I can be sitting there and mourning. But as a human being, I also have feelings, so… I go out, I have a partner, and yeah, make love. And I use protectives. Always, always. For me, it’s about me. So I protect myself first to protect him.

But sometimes it’s very, very challenging, when you are positive and you are above 50, people will not tell you openly that, you know, they don’t want that relationship, but… The fact that you have “double tragedy,” it becomes very difficult. I think for the last one year I have not had a relationship. So that’s why I decided, okay, let me go back to school, let me keep myself busy. But, yeah, recently I found a friend.

I think what I am concerned with is now, will I ever get a person, you know, like, aging WITH somebody else. Like when I retire, I will be lonely.  But I would really love to have somebody, because I lost the father of my kids, I am a grandmother now, and so how will I cope as a single mother living alone in the village. Because back home there, you don’t live in the cities forever. At a certain age, you definitely, you have to go back home. But even if I live in the city, I’ll need some companion. Who would want to live with a grandmother who is positive? Yeah.