However, the night’s brightest star was Jane Njoki Peris, a mother of three children who has been living with HIV for more than 20 years. She moved the audience with her stories of almost dying of AIDS, what brought her back to health, and how she now finds inspiration and purpose as a Mentor Mother Team Leader at m2m’s Mathare North Health Centre site in Nairobi, Kenya, helping other HIV-positive mothers lead positive and healthy lives. Jane left the stage to a standing ovation.
When Jane visited m2m’s office in London, she shared one of her most powerful memories of her work as a Mentor Mother.
Jane Njoki Peris’s Speech at m2m’s London Benefit on October 3rd:
Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is my sincere pleasure to be here with you tonight. My name is Jane Njoki Peris and I am a Mentor Mother Team Leader based at the Mathare North Health Centre in Nairobi. I am also a mother of three beautiful children and a wife.
I have been living with HIV since 1991 – that is over 20 years. When I was diagnosed with HIV, I was sure I would die. In those days there was no counseling or freely available drugs in Kenya. I was in my 20s and working as a waitress at the Kenya National Theatre. One day I was hospitalised with meningitis and fell into a coma. It was after waking up that I knew something was wrong. I was in an isolated area and the medical staff would wear masks when attending to me.
Did I face stigma? Oh yes. When I returned back to work, people did not want to shake hands with me. I was even given a separate cup to drink our usual morning tea. At home, a family member whom I was living with separated my eating utensils and beddings from the rest of the family’s. Fortunately, I also had supporting family members who encouraged me and helped contribute towards my medical bills.
In 1995 I was terminated from my job at the Kenya National Theatre. This is because I was missing at least two days per week due to illness. For the next ten years I did a variety of casual jobs, and did not have access to HIV treatment. As a result, in 2005 I developed full blown AIDS. I weighed less than 40kgs, my hair was falling out and I had Cryptococcal meningitis and extra pulmonary TB. Everyone was sure I had died like yesterday. Thankfully ARVs had recently come to Kenya and I was put on them. They saved my life.
Over the next few years I regained my strength. I joined support groups and grew more passionate about living positively with HIV. That’s when I learned about mothers2mothers and applied for a job as a Mentor Mother Team Leader. I was amazed by this job because I’d never heard of people with HIV being employed openly, let alone being employed because they were positive.
So, what do we do when a newly diagnosed mother comes to mothers2mothers? She comes in to our room, we offer her a cup of tea and give her a safe environment to express herself. After that we share our own experiences with her. Many times new clients cannot believe we are HIV positive mothers and that it is possible to have HIV negative children. We educate and support them on how to protect their babies from being infected and how they can stay healthy. Coming to our support groups shows them that this is all very possible.
What gives me joy about my work? When I meet a mother who has cried and refused to accept her status later coming into the clinic to ask to be started on drugs, and she keeps coming back. But the best part is when a woman delivers her baby and that little baby tests HIV negative. On one of the walls in the Mentor Mother room back in Kenya, I have a display of photos given to me by mothers whom we have assisted and have gone on to deliver healthy babies. I’m happy to report that some of these babies are now in school and all of them are doing great.
It has been a long journey for me since I first found out my HIV status. I had previously struggled with low self-esteem. Becoming employed and working with our clients helped me slowly gain confidence. I can put food on the table and help educate my children. I have done a lot including going back to school. And today I am here at this remarkable event, speaking with you. I am reminded that I have to keep accomplishing what I set out to do after I almost died of AIDS. I am living a healthy and productive life as an HIV positive mother. Best of all, I am helping other mothers to do the same.