WHEN she was diagnosed with HIV at 10 years in class four, Winnie Orende was devastated. She thought this was the end of her life.
However, she has survived stigma and discrimination that came with HIV diagnosis at that time.
Now 25 years old, when many girls her age would be partying hard, she is always busy teaching adolescents about abstinence, HIV/Aids and dangers of stigma.
In a county where three people are infected with HIV daily and two succumb to the complications of the scourge, Orende is advocating for behavioural change.
The National Aids Control Council says in Mombasa County, teenagers are the most at risk of the infection.
Coast regional NACC coordinator Julius Koome says mortality rate is higher than new infections at the coast.
“We have to change our behaviours. People are dying and infections are soaring. Yearly, this county gets 1,600 new infections and 2,000 people die. Lamu, Taita Taveta and Tana River counties are safer but the rest - Mombasa, Kwale and Kilifi - are at risk,” he said.
Orende's boyfriend quickly deserted her when she told him she has HIV.
She was born with the virus and believes everybody deserves a chance for a full life.
She works as a counsellor at Bomu Hospital in Mombasa.
“My status doesn’t define who I am. I am an outgoing girl who loves making friends. I also enjoy helping people and I love children. I love life and I am very cheerful,” says Orende, the last born in a family of four.
“I was the only child born with the virus. My parents died while I was in class four. Their death shattered my life. I was taken to hospital where my status was revealed,” she says.
“Can you imagine a class four girl being told she’s HIV positive? And without my parents to help me through!”
“It was the most trying moment in my life but I am glad I was told about my status earlier as I learned how to live positively at an earlier stage,” she says with a smile.
But she was devastated when her classmates heard about her status.
“I was called names like a whore and was shunned. Stigma was rife both in school and at my neighbourhood. What doesn’t kill you can only make you stronger. I lived one day at a time believing one day they would understand my predicament,” she says.
Her doctors and family supported her and she always took her medication on time.
She believes it is better to reveal to children born with HIV their status at a tender age. "But counseling is paramount. When the society is taught about stigma then everything would be okay,” she says.
She has strong faith in God. “He knows why I was born with the virus who am I to question God?” After high school, Orende enrolled at the Kenya Association of Professional Counselors and did a counseling course in 2010.
She is now a professional peer counsellor and educator and she also supports other children living with the virus.
“If I can be employed I can help some of the children whom I support, who come from humble backgrounds. Stress is what makes many people with HIV succumb. Let’s accept each other the way we are,” she says.
Orende lives by three mantras: "I would advocate for protected sex, faithfulness to your partner and abstinence."
To those living with the disease, her advice is: live, laugh, interact, share, and always let someone learn from your experience.