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AIDS activist proves there's life after HIV

From David McKenzie, CNN
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Asunta Wagura, Kenya's leading AIDS activist
  • Asunta Wagura is the executive director of the Kenya Network of Women with AIDS
  • She has lived with AIDS for more than 20 years
  • Her work has helped to change public attitudes toward HIV/AIDS in Kenya
  • She challenges the assumptions of how an HIV-positive woman can live her life

Every week CNN International's African Voices highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera.

(CNN) -- Two weeks after a routine medical test, Kenyan nursing student Asunta Wagura was summoned into her principal's office. There, a crowd of tutors, student leaders and her mother was waiting for her.

One of her tutors broke the silence.

"I was told, 'Asunta, I'm sorry, you have AIDS,'" says Wagura, recalling the moment some two decades ago that changed her life forever.

"And she went ahead and told me, 'Now that you're dying we are not going to keep you in this institution ... go back and leave.'"

During that period, HIV/AIDS was regarded as a death sentence in Africa. Wagura was told she had only six months to live.

Coping with HIV and AIDS
Building an organization

But more than 20 years later, Wagura has emerged as a symbol of hope for those infected with the disease.

As Kenya's leading HIV and AIDS campaigner, she battles tirelessly for both public recognition and private respect, giving thousands of women a voice in the fight against the stigma of HIV.

The months that followed Wagura's diagnosis were filled with denial, shame and rejection from those closest to her, including her own mother.

"While I was packing my stuff at the college she told me, 'Well, this is it, whether you die or live, you must make sure you compensate me back what it cost me to bring you to this college,' Wagura says.

"And this was about 20 minutes or so after the disclosure of my HIV status and I was wondering, 'is this coming from my mother?'"

Rejected from her family, community and college, Wagura counted down the hours until her own death. She says she can't describe how lonely she was at the time.

"Mostly I felt I wish I could just get one person who would appreciate me, who would understand what I'm going through during this period until I die," she remembers.

Completely alone in the world, Wagura even attempted suicide several times as her family made preparations for her funeral. But when the clock wound down as the six months passed, she found herself alive and decided to live one day at a time.

"I think that was the turning point," she says. "I said it doesn't matter what people say, what my family says, I'm in charge between now and the time I depart."

Abandoned by her family, Wagura decided to go public and share her story in a courageous act aiming to reverse the message that AIDS is a death sentence.

Driven by the need to connect with people who understood the challenges of living with the virus, in 1993 Wagura co-founded Kenya Network of Women (KENWA), a support group for women, and occasionally men, to get together and talk to help each other financially and emotionally.

"I'm in charge of my life and my destiny as long as I'm alive," says Wagura. "That is the message we've been driving in KENWA -- we're in charge of our lives and we don't need to be reduced to dependants on hand-outs and reliefs. I can work for the sustainability of my life."

The Kenyan group has swelled in numbers over the years and has now grown into a formidable regional organization with plans to expand to Southern Sudan.

Its drop-in centers provide testing facilities, antiretroviral drugs and advice on preventing mother-to-child transmission.

We're in charge of our lives and we don't need to be reduced to dependants on hand-outs and reliefs.
--Asunta Wagura
  • HIV and AIDS
  • World AIDS Day
  • Kenya

Since AIDS was declared a national disaster in 1999, the situation has improved significantly in Kenya.

The painstaking work by Wagura and other activists, and later the Kenyan government, has led to a change in public attitudes toward HIV/AIDS in the east African country. The advent of antiretroviral medicines and the prevention of mother-to-child transmission has altered the nature of the disease.

Having made her whole life public from the beginning, Wagura has been challenging the very assumptions of how an HIV-positive woman can live her life.

She has a weekly column in one of Kenya's most popular papers and stirred international debate when a few years back she publicly declared her intention to have another child, despite knowing her status.

Wagura, whose first son was born in 1990 and has been tested negative, says: "The reason I wanted to have another child is because there are so may don't's in people living with HIV/AIDS that (people think) don't even dare have a child ... you should tune yourself to dying."

After becoming informed on how to avoid child transmission, Wagura gave birth to her second son a few years ago. She says that when her new-born child was tested negative she wanted the whole world to know.

"People give a lot of credit to HIV but looking at my life and the virus that I live in -- I mean I'm on the higher scoring side," she says.

"I've gotten almost what I thought I lost," she adds. "I've worked around my career, I've worked around my family and I've worked out towards my happiness and fulfillment of life and that is what I was robbed of by HIV."