By Precious Kaniki

I found out that I was HIV positive twelve years ago and back then, it felt as if all my dreams were shattered. The only thing that came to my mind was to commit suicide which I almost managed to do by not taking my ARVs for seven years – I only took them when I felt like taking them. I withdrew from family and friends and I stopped studying while waiting upon death. I lost all my self-confidence and displayed a fake smile to the world, pretending to be okay when I wasn’t. I lost interest in everything. At one point, I remember when I was told I had a CD4 of 19 – I was the happiest person knowing I only remained with 18 counts to die. At the same time, I was failing treatment and so I was transferred to Didanosine Stavudine Abacavir, which meant taking twice the dosage of medication I was previously taking. This made me feel hopeless.

I enrolled in college where I was doing a diploma in Social Work and in my final academic year, I developed stomach pains. Within two months, I got sick to the point where I wasn’t even drinking water. I was 23 years old and I weighed 37kg (81lbs). It was in that moment where I was able to reflect on all the seven years since my diagnosis and I concluded that I had been difficult; full of anger and tears, and I had even attempted suicide. I reflected on how I hated myself for all those 7 years. After this, I remember going to the clinic and telling my doctor to do what they had to do, and I would do the same. It felt similar to when I had first started treatment. I was angry at myself for all the opportunity I missed because I didn’t accept myself. I could have been an electrical engineer. I could have made my parents happy by passing with distinction during high school. Regardless of that, all I wanted was to make the most of my life, to be happy and help other adolescents and youth who share a similar experience to mine.

When I was volunteering at the clinic in 2015, I saw a 19-year-old girl who had tested positive for HIV, crying while not caring that people were watching. I saw this girl in me, and I knew that if no one would be there for her, she would end up thinking life is cruel and bad. From then on, I started getting numbers from youth on treatment and told them that I am also HIV positive. I created a WhatsApp group for young people living with HIV and this group has been my true source of courage. It is a group with which I relate and where I’m able to share my struggles without being judged. I have come to know many young people striving every day to live their lives to the fullest despite their challenges with peer pressure and disclosure to potential partners.

I give thanks to everyone who was there and has always been there: family, friends and my mentor who helped me through recovery and towards accepting my status. Today, I am a co-founder of the Phenomenal Youths Association which focuses on the well-being of young people living with HIV after they start treatment, including their mental well-being. I advocate for good treatment adherence, self-acceptance, self-love and for undetectable = untransmittable.