The buzzing hub at the bus terminal nicknamed Machakos Airport by Nairobians lies in one of the most crowded sectors of Kenya’s capital. There, all day long, people going to the countryside cross paths with those arriving in the city. Next door are the new offices of the Kenya AIDS Society (KAS), the home base of founder Joe Muriuki, a 40-year-old father of three who was Kenya’s first open person with HIV.
In 1989, inspired by Ugandan pop singer Philly Lutaya’s “Alone and Frightened,” in which Lutaya came out as HIV positive, Muriuki decided to do the same. “I owed people the truth,” Muriuki says. “Our relations tried to stop me, saying, ’How can you advertise such a shameful situation?’ But I had to stand up and tell them, ’Look, here I am, guys. I have HIV. It is real.’”
Kenyans were stunned. Then an accountant with the Nairobi City Commission, Muriuki suddenly found himself exiled to a city clinic, doing odd jobs instead of his professional work. The medical director defended him, he says, “but others were afraid even of the air I breathed.” On World’s AIDS Day 1991, his wife, Jane, spoke publicly about her support for people with HIV. A teacher at a primary school outside of Nairobi, she was soon transferred to another facility. Though she had tested negative, parents, teachers and children were all afraid of her, too. “They were the losers,” she says now. “AIDS was spreading fast, and teachers in that school had already died of it. Together, we might have made the difference.”
At first, Muriuki says, Jane was alone, “standing up to her parents who were urging her to leave me.” Now Muriuki is a hero to his mother-in-law and the rest of the family. His three sons, 9, 12 and 13, are all HIV negative, and Jane has remained so, too, since she and her husband turned to condoms early on. “We do not fear our bed,” Jane says, “because we love one another.”
Muriuki arrives out of breath for our meeting at KAS, and people are already lined up to see him. The offices are spacious, but due to lack of money, the staff has dropped from 37 to nine. When night falls at the end of this long, hot day, Muriuki will still be at work. But the life of the center, he explains, is not here in the office, but far afield where KAS reaches up to 300 people a day through its 30 HIV positive volunteers. The group’s main goal is to help people with AIDS end their isolation through outreach, education and group therapy. “Every day we have letters from groups asking us to talk to them about AIDS,” Muriuki says.
He laughs long and often during our talk. Positive thinking is his gospel. This is fortunate because antiretrovirals are too expensive for nearly all Kenyans with HIV, including the well--connected Muriuki. But his mother-in-law makes sure that he is well stocked with grains, flour (especially ugaii, a maize meal) and vegetables (such as kale and spinach). He shows me the lab test with his most recent CD4 count, 600, down 250 from his last test -- five years ago.
A breeze lifts the pale curtains in Muriuki’s office. Behind his desk hangs a banner that reads “A Ray of Hope.” Yet Muriuki worries that AIDS information has not led to radical change. “For some in western Kenya, AIDS is seen as a wasting disease, chira, which has existed there since time immemorial an illness that affects those who break taboos.” While the state teaches condom use, the church advocates abstinence, he says, so Kenya’s schools have no AIDS ed.
Muriuki says his dearest dream is that politicians use their platform to kill AIDS stigma. “When I see that of the first eight people whom I knew had AIDS only two of us are still alive, I marvel,” says Joe. “I think God has kept me alive to prove the world wrong in their perception of people with AIDS. I do not underestimate the responsibility.”