Doreen Moraa’s wisdom, attitude and confident demeanor has seen her triumph over HIV – for 24 good years – like a colossus.
Her mantra: “The cure for HIV does not lie in some laboratory in the U.S., in the U.K. or Australia. It lies in our hearts – in the form of love.”
Doreen Moraa was born 24 years ago to an HIV discordant couple. An HIV discordant couple is where one partner is HIV-positive and the other negative.
She was born healthy and had normal childhood until she began developing breathing and skin problems later when she realised that she was living with HIV.
In a candid, high-spirited interview with EDAILY, Doreen Moraa shared her experience living with the virus. Below is a transcript of the profile interview:
EDAILY: At what point in life did you discover that you are HIV (Positive)?
DOREEN MORAA: When I was aged 12 and a pupil in Standard Seven. During one of my many hospital visits, I overheard my mum talking with my doctor. All along, I was visiting the hospital, but I did not know what exactly was wrong with me. I heard the doctor ask my mum: ‘When did you discover that she is HIV (Positive)?’
I did not even wait to hear my mum’s response. I was already confused. It found when we had already been introduced to HIV in class. So, our teacher made it sound like it was a death sentence. I was shocked to hear the doctor’s question directed at my mum. But after some time I thought to myself: maybe I heard the wrong thing. I thus brushed it off.
The following year, my mum went into coma. She was really sick. Actually, we had given up. We thought she was going to pass on. But then, she recovered. And after fully regaining her health, she took me to hospital, I got tested and the doctor disclosed to me my HIV status. He told me: ‘Doreen, you will have to take antiretroviral drugs for the rest of your life.’
By that time, I had already gotten used to the idea of hospitals, medication. So, I felt like it was not a big deal. At least I was guaranteed every month I had to travel to hospital, my mum would take me out and buy me chips and chicken, you know? It was a good thing to me. And I had to miss school one day of the month. I actually saw it as an opportunity for me to miss school. I took the news positively.
EDAILY: How has it been interacting with your siblings who are alive and are HIV (Negative)?
DOREEN MORAA: At first it was difficult because my other siblings (three) used to feel that I am favoured by my parents. They’d ask why all the attention came my way. They thought I had stolen my parents’ attention, while in real sense my parents were just protecting me. After the death of my brother (fourth born), they feared I would die too. They wanted to keep me close. The doctors had also given me an ultimatum – that if I made it to age 12, then I will survive. But before that, I was at the mercy of God.
My siblings kind of brought some rivalry but with time, they learnt to accept me.
EDAILY: Today you celebrate 12 times 2 years of life (24). Take us through your journey in high school because that is the phase people often get self-conscious about their health, appearance and clique. How was it like interacting with your fellow students – and did you inform them that you are HIV (Positive)?
DOREEN MORAA: After I cleared Standard Eight, my parents refused to let me join a boarding school. Form One and Form Two, I went to a day school. It was okay. No one knew I was sick. But during the 2007 post-election violence, we were displaced – and my parents moved to Machakos County. After the relocation, we did not get proper day schools around. Now I had to go to a boarding school.
The thought was disturbing. I was used to home-made food, security by my parents etc. But when I joined the high school, I had to hide to take my ARVs. I could not tell anyone I was HIV (Positive). My parents had told me never to tell anyone about my HIV status; and I asked her what about the drugs I was taking. She told me to say that they were for heart-related problems when someone inquired. It was complicated. I did not know anything about heart-related issues.
One time I asked a friend of mine: ‘How would you feel if a friend of yours disclosed to you that she is HIV (Positive)?’ She told me: ‘I would not even greet her’. That already was a setback. I could not even tell her about my HIV status in confidence. I said my parents and doctors were right. So, let me remain silent about my HIV status and see how it goes. Throughout high school nobody knew I was HIV (Positive).
I used to take my ARVs at a time when most of the students were not in the dormitory. In the morning when we would go for breakfast, I would carry my medication with me and take it on my way to the tap. So, nobody noticed I was taking drugs. They would have only noticed if they searched into my metal box.
EDAILY: And was there a special diet for you in school?
DOREEN MORAA: No. But my parents would sneak in proper food most weekends, especially on our way to church. My little brother would hand the food to me and I would figure out how to sneak the food in school. Yeah.
EDAILY: Your high school dream was to become a journalist. You changed your career dream. Why?
DOREEN MORAA: Actually, I had two dream careers. One was air hostess and the other was journalism. When I completed high school education, my uncle who was a lecturer – and a journalist, advised me not to pursue my dream of becoming a radio host. He told me: ‘You cannot become a radio presenter because you are HIV (Positive). Your audience would one day or another get to know of your HIV status and that is not a good thing’. He told me to think of another career.
I then went to inquire what it takes for one to enroll for air hostess classes at a city college. The lady at the reception told me: ‘You cannot become an air hostess because you have a scar on your face. And we require people who are flawless.’
I got the scar from herpes zoster, when I was aged 8 and the second time when I was 11. When the college secretary told me that, I felt the virus was taking a toll on me.
I thereafter pursued a course in community development.
EDAILY: Are you dating? If yes, how has the relationship been?
DOREEN MORAA: (Laughs). I have been in a relationship. Not long ago. I think I was 22-years-old. It was okay. You know issues come up and you know relationships are complicated. (Pauses) It is just that when you are (HIV) positive, it becomes kind of hectic. To get a person to date becomes tricky. Most people, when they hear you are HIV (Positive), they decide to run, give you blue ticks on WhatsApp, you know? Such kind of things. It becomes rather hard, but currently I am not dating. My partner was way cooler than every other person I have told about my HIV status. His acceptance of me looked to good to be true. But later learnt he was real. And he’d tell me: ‘Thank you for being honest.’
However, there were men who would pursue me actively, but once I told them about my HIV status, they would get disappointed and run away.
EDAILY: Your parents and teachers told you never to disclose your HIV status. At what point did you come out – and what inspired your decision to go public?
DOREEN MORAA: When I was mobilising people at my then-TSC work place, I read somewhere in a newspaper about some lady who was making change in Kibera and how she had grown up. I said: ‘If this lady can come out and change society, then maybe the society needs a practical example of someone living with HIV’. So, I wrote to the editor and that is how it started. That day they shared the story on their Facebook page and the story received a lot of positive feedback.
People would thereafter open up to me and tell me how stigma affected their lives. I felt the need to go out more.
EDAILY: What has been the worst case of stigma that you’ve gone through as a person living with HIV?
DOREEN MORAA: That was way back when I was a child and I did not even know that I was HIV (Positive) actually. I remember when my brother passed on, I went to live with a relative of mine. When I was there, I noticed that the lady of the house would give me my own cup, my own plate and my own spoon. And these would be disinfected after I finished eating. Even my clothes were washed separately. I used to ask myself why she treated me that bad. With time I came to realise that the reason why she did that is because she was afraid. If I touched her kids, or her or the utensils I would infect them.
A case of self stigma: at one point I remember I was mad at my mum – and I even accused her of making me sick. We saw Babu Loliondo on TV and to compensate for that, she decided that we visit him to get the cup with hope of being cured of HIV. I had refused to accept my status, the stigma was affecting me, I had stopped taking drugs. My mum said: ‘Let’s go, may be you can get a cure there.’ But then, it was the things you do out of desperation. Nothing came out of it.
EDAILY: How many kids would you want to have?
DOREEN MORAA: Two (laughs). Twins: a boy and a girl.
EDAILY: You look amazing. Besides positive living and taking ARVs, what is the other secret to such a fulfilling life?
DOREEN MORAA: (Laughs). Nothing. It is God’s grace. I am not such a healthy eater – chips is life. Anyway, I eat normal foods, avoid stress as much as possible, read the Bible, go to church and accept my status.
EDAILY: What word of advice would you give to someone who is newly infected with HIV – and has just realised his or her HIV status?
DOREEN MORAA: They say in three seconds, a person gets infected with HIV. And also in those three seconds, a person is being diagnosed with cancer. Imagine this person who has been diagnosed with cancer has to be put on a waiting list for chemotherapy in like – best case scenario 2019, because I hear 2018 is already full. So, you have walked into a VCT and your HIV status turns out positive.
Testing is free, medication is free. You have been given a second chance in life to live healthy, almost normal because it is not exactly normal because you have to be taking ARVs. But this other patient has to be waiting as the cancer progresses till 2019. Who is better between the two of you? The cancer patient needs money, needs support. Cancer is expensive disease currently. And here you are, with a very manageable condition, all you have to do is accept it. HIV is about attitude. Have a positive attitude towards it, it won’t get you down.
Watch full interview below: