If there is one thing we can be certain of, it’s that each one of us will one day pass away or rather die for a lack of a better word. When someone you know commits suicide, you are plunged into confusion and grief. Life is instinctually valued by all of life’s creatures. Even a blade of grass or flower fights for the privilege of life. When someone close to you voluntarily ends their lives, your entire value system is thrown into question as guilty feelings start to  consume, thinking that  maybe, just maybe you should  somehow have seen the signs that led to the individual’s suicide.

AIDS-related stigma and discrimination is the prejudice, negative attitudes, abuse and maltreatment directed at people living with HIV and AIDS, and, this include the infected and affected. AIDS related stigma has resulted in psychological damage that has adverse effects in families, peers and the community at large. Stigma not only makes it more difficult for people trying to come to terms with the condition manage their lives on a personal level, but it also interferes with efforts to fight the epidemic. Stigma has led to fear of social disgrace and negative community reaction which in turn has devastating effects that are further fuelled by perpetuating the wall of silence and shame surrounding the disease thus hindering the efforts to address issues related to the epidemic. Stigma places an emotional burden to the affected and infected.

Fred a peer and community mobilizer, born 24 years ago was one of the people who had to face and fight stigma and unfortunately lost the battle. When the Drop In Centre opened its doors to the community in Rongai, Fred was among the first peer mobilizers to be trained. The centre works with the Most at Risk Population in effecting  HIV preventive strategies among others.  He assisted a lot in establishing Chang’aa dens that are visited by our Community mobilizers to reach out to sex workers and bar hosts/hostesses, besides mobilizing his peers and male counterparts especially those with multiple female sex partners to go for HIV testing and Counseling.  He was a good communicator and would easily convince and pass messages that others found had to. Fred was without a doubt the best male peer mobilizer and good team player. Fred was always cheerful and would go out of his way to help his friends and peers; if he could not assist in kind he would be there in person to offer emotional support. It comes as no surprise thus to find that he was the primary caregiver of his ailing siblings. One of his brothers was an alcoholic who passed on a couple of weeks back due to liver disease, while the other of his brothers is living with HIV/AIDS and a defaulter CCC client at the Drop IN Centre. His aging mother is currently sick after having been involved in an accident which left her incapacitated.

Towards the end his days, Fred fell out with his friends and peers, started to drink alcohol to the point that he, at one time had to be carried home because he was excessively drunk. His reason for drinking was to forget. Fred neglected his small business of mending shoes and continued to be depressed as the days went by.  However it was not easy for anyone to tell that he was stressed or depressed as he continued to be jovial to all and because he was outgoing everyone knew that he had no problems, besides, he never spoke of his problems.  Everyone in the Community “knew” that he was taking care of his brothers who were both PLWH and as a result his girlfriend broke up with him saying she did not want to relate to people whose family died one after the other because of AIDS.  

Fred, he was always there for his friends and anyone who needed his assistance, but we are the same ones who failed him, we failed to see the cry for help when he changed and started drinking, we never reached out because he was always cheerful and easygoing. Some people come into our lives and quickly go, some stay for awhile and leave footprints on our hearts…and we are never the same.  Fred touched so many lives and hearts that will never be the same again, that changed for better because he cared and cared and just cared.

All is not lost though, the battle is still on.  We are not fighting HIV and AIDS, we are fighting the stigma that comes with it.  HIV and AIDS is currently a condition that can be managed, the stigma involved is the disease that will not go away if awareness is not effectively carried out. Fred was only a care giver not infected but affected with a heavy burden that he carried alone. Had he been living with HIV he would have joined a support group, but he was a caregiver who had no one to turn to but himself.

What is the way forward so we don’t lose more Fred’s from something that can be addressed? How do we fight stigma in our society? How do we change people’s attitudes to AIDS?

We can fight stigma by being open, having the courage to speak out, and by having the heart of not condemning or judging others.  Otherwise stigma will continue to exist as long as people have poor understanding of HIV and AIDs and the pain and suffering caused by negative attitudes and discriminatory practices. We need to confront the biased social attitudes in order to reduce stigma of both the affected and infected people living with HIV and AIDS.

“Death leaves a heartache no one can heal; love leaves a memory no one can steal. Rest in peace dear Fred the footprints you left in our hearts will never be erased.”