LAIKIPIA, Kenya (RNS) In a community where AIDS is still viewed as a death sentence, an Anglican priest is working to build an HIV-aware church.
The Rev. Rahab Wanjiru, 46, has the credibility to help dispel the dangerous silence that surrounds the virus and combines with stigma, discrimination and denial in Lamuria, a remote region about 120 miles from Nairobi.
That’s because Wanjiru has the virus herself.
“Every time I preach in church or speak to the community, I make sure that I teach something about the HIV/AIDS,” she said. “Most people here are ignorant about the virus, but I tell the congregations that there is much hope, even when one has HIV.”
About 1.6 million Kenyans are living with HIV in a population of about 42 million. About 900,000 are on anti-retroviral drugs, according to the National AIDS Control Council. Despite major progress, HIV/AIDS remains one of Kenya's most significant public health challenges.
During World AIDS Day events Thursday (Dec. 1), Wanjiru gave her personal testimony at a gathering to mark the day in Nyeri, a city about 60 miles from Nairobi. In the afternoon, she visited HIV-infected orphans at the Kigumo Anglican Church in Nanyuki.
"She is an asset in the war against HIV,” said the Rev. Joseph Njakai, archdeacon of the Mweiga Archdeaconry in Lamuria. “She is very vocal and dedicated. Every time we are in clergy meetings, she speaks openly about the virus. Her disclosure has also made it easy for the other clergy to approach her to learn more about HIV."
Wanjiru learned she had the virus in 1997, after struggling with chest pains for four years.
“I was shocked and devastated by the result,” she said. “I was bitter with God and wanted to ask him many questions.”
At that time, the world was still struggling to understand the virus and people with AIDS were dying very quickly.
“This left me more worried and confused. I believed I would live for only three years,” she said.
In 2002, she said, she planned to kill herself if she was denied admission to seminary due to her status. In what she describes as miraculous, her status was overlooked and she was admitted to the Kabare Theological College in central Kenya.
At the time, she was living without the lifesaving drugs that had just come on the market, believing, like many Kenyans, that a good diet and proper exercise might send the virus into remission. But after starting school, she quickly realized the error of her ways and starting taking anti-retroviral drugs.
She is now studying for her master's degree in HIV and community care at St. Paul’s University, a Protestant school in Limuru town, near Nairobi.
She has struggled against misconceptions, shame, denial and discrimination.
Shortly before she could get married to her fiance in 2010, a bishop who knew of her condition advised her to cancel the engagement, a development that left her broken, lonely and even more confused.
For a while, she gave up on marriage, but in 2013 she finally wed Mathew Muhoro, a primary school teacher.
Muhoro has the HIV virus too, and after going through a program to prevent mother-child transmission, she bore a daughter, Joywin Wangari, now 2, who is virus-free.
“I thank God for this child. God has done wonders in our lives and I am trying another one,” Wanjiru said.
Wanjiru worries church members are not yet knowledgeable about HIV and AIDS. And many denominations have yet to fully accept people with HIV and treat them with dignity.
“Since going public about my status, I have to struggle to get space to speak about the virus in some meetings in my diocese,” she said.
She also thinks Kenyan primary and secondary schools' HIV/AIDS curricula need to change.
“There is a lot of stigma in the texts," she said. "Something needs to be done about it.”
The cleric believes the epidemic can be defeated if the world adopts the SAVE approach, which stands for "Safer practices, Access to treatment, Voluntary counseling and testing and Empowerment." The campaign was recently developed by African clergy who felt the ABC approach (Abstain, Be faithful and use Condoms) wasn’t working.
“If people who are positive can bring up (an HIV)-negative generation, that is clear statement that we can defeat AIDS,” said Wanjiru.
At the moment, however, many people in the parish and the community look up to her for support and knowledge.
"She is extremely committed in fighting HIV and AIDS,” said Jane Ng'ang'a, coordinator of the Kenyan chapter of INERELA+, the International Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV and AIDS. "I think she can be of much help to HIV-positive clergy."
(Fredrick Nzwili is a Nairobi-based RNS correspondent)