Celine Mboya was 13 and about to sit her exams for entry into high school in Homa Bay, Kenya, when a clinician diagnosed her as HIV positive. Wanting to protect her, her single mother (her father died when she was a baby) initially hid Celine’s status from her, instead telling her that she had tuberculosis (TB).
She found out the truth a year later. “I felt like I was doomed,” Celine says. “I lost focus in life.” Angry at her mother, she refused to eat for two days in protest.
Five years on, the 18-year-old is now a vocal advocate for young people living with HIV/AIDS, offering hope and encouragement as well as discussing the topic that once caused her such despair: the importance of full disclosure.
Celine’s work began last year, when at the age of 17 she volunteered to become an adolescent lead at Miriu Health Centre in Homa Bay. This was part of the Adolescent Youth and Peer Advisory Group, an ambassadorship program run in conjunction with the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.
She discovered her purpose: “The thing I love most is talking to young people about the importance of disclosure.”
She talks to young people living with HIV about accepting their status and handling discrimination from their peers. And she often makes home visits to those who aren’t adhering to their treatment regimens.
Sometimes, Celine uses her own story to encourage. “Most of them don’t believe it, but I tell them it’s true, that it’s the real life story,” she says. “I speak to young people in schools, in homes, in society. I want to overcome some of the stigma because many people here believe that HIV is a punishment from God.
“So I ask them, ‘Do you believe that I have been punished?’ When they say yes, I ask, ‘Then what do you believe I could have done to deserve such a punishment?’ And that is when they start to say, ‘Oh well, I don’t know.’ They don’t have evidence to show that it is a punishment, and that is when I tell them that is just a common myth.”
For Celine, it’s also a way of giving back to the health facility that first cared for her as a patient.
“When I first found out about my status, the team at the centre really encouraged me,” she says. “My biggest problem was in school, because I couldn’t concentrate, with everything that was happening to my health. But [the health centre] even helped me with some of the mathematical textbooks for my exams and I achieved a C+.”
Celine has continued her studies alongside her work at the health centre, and has a place at Egerton University to study business this year. She hopes to become a HIV counsellor in the future.
Last year she was asked to represent Miriu Health Centre at a conference in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. “That is where they realised the potential in me,” Celine says. “I have so much passion for this work.”
She and her mother now get along well. “In the beginning I used to tell her that everyone, even if positive, still has potential. Now, she’s very, very happy about what I do with my life.”
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