Nairobi — Every time Rosemary Olale told anyone about her HIV status 10 years ago, tears would roll down her cheeks uncontrollably; she felt helpless... she felt hopeless.
But she picked herself up and is now the chairperson of 'Tuinuke na Tuendelee Mbele' (Arise and Prosper) Self Help Group based in Kariobangi in Nairobi's Eastlands area, which has brought together 14 other women living with HIV.
During the interview at their five-roomed premises in Kariobangi, Rosemary barely puts on a sad face as one would expect. She is full of life, hope and confidence of achieving her dreams of not only becoming the businesswoman she had always wanted to be, but changing her community.
When Rosemary, who lives in Korogocho slums discovered that she was HIV positive in 2004, her world had come tumbling down, but she has decided to overcome that and pursue her dreams.
"We used to have these NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) which would give us porridge in the morning and 'githeri' (maize and beans) during lunch time. This was burning my heart a lot because I felt like I was a completely disabled person. It was like sitting and waiting to die," she recalls.
She decided to change her outlook to life. She challenged one of her friends who was also living with HIV that the idea of going for relief food was doing more harm to them. It was time to wake up and do something like any other Kenyan.
"I asked this lady one day; 'what are we doing? Are we normal?' Then she laughed at me and replied, 'what we are waiting for is death. You can't tell me that we can do business, for what? That's just absurd.' But I never gave up encouraging her and she finally gave in. I later heard of another woman who was so ill and I decided to approach her and share the same idea of starting something of our own. She too was also waiting for her death and this made the three of us," she says jokingly as we both laugh.
The three women decided to start a 'Chama' (group), and because they had little or no income, they could only afford a quarter kilogram of sugar a week initially. They went ahead and started saving Sh20 a week.
"They all rejected the idea that we meet in their houses because they feared that everyone would know our HIV status. So they maintained that we make our usual meetings in my house because alone 'I was the strong woman'. Our meetings were so much fun, even making jokes about our status," she says.
Rosemary at one point became a beneficiary of the World Vision project which was ran under Kariobangi HIV and AIDS programme. She underwent a tailoring course for three months and at the end was offered a start up kit, which was a sewing machine. This was a big boost for their group.
She trained the rest and their tailoring business picked up so well despite being done in her small house which she also shared with her family. However in 2009, Rosemary contracted Tuberculosis (TB).
"This was one of the trying moments in my life. I knew it was my time to die. I started telling my friends how they would continue with the business in my house and also take care of my three children if I happened to die. They would really cry a lot because they felt if I was to go, they would all go down. But after two months I took drugs and got well."
Apart from making clothes, they got into bead work, making hand bags, polythene bags, aprons, table mats among others.
The group was once sponsored by a well wisher and managed to showcase their products at one trade fair at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC). "I sold everything and came back with Sh15,000. The women were so excited but I said we would not spend the money but use it to rent a room for our business. I however I gave them something small to enjoy themselves."
Apart from catering for their daily basic needs, the women have been able to educate their children and expand their business.
"My name is Pamela Orodi. Previously, I would stay in the house doing nothing. But when I joined the women to make beads and clothes, I have zero stress. We usually joke, laugh and we forget that we are sick and other problems back home. We are even happier that we have moved to a bigger place. It is so gratifying."
The business currently has a net of worth of Sh150,000 paying them at least Sh10,000 a month. The number of women in the group has also grown to 15, all living with HIV.
One of the other major activities that the group is now involved in is nurturing young mothers who have no income. They give them various skills and later release them to either go look for employment or start their own businesses.
Linda Anyango is already a mother of one at the age 19. She dropped out of school after getting pregnant. She is among 400 teenage mums from Korogocho slums who have benefited from the 'Tuinuke na Tuendelee Mbele' group.
"I got pregnant accidentally but I believe God is the one who gives children. My baby girl is one year and a month old," she says looking at the baby who is asleep at the time of the interview, "I will get a good job and take care of her."
The women group has also started a Kids Club. They gather school going children from the slums to keep them busy over the weekend, giving the extra tuition while counselling those going through challenges at their homes.
The group's dream is to venture into the property market." We would want to later get a big loan and come up with our own building. You know this death refused to come so we are here to stay and achieve our dreams," she says laughing.
"A woman is not someone who sits down and gives up easily, whether with HIV or not. You have to be strong and you must work. We have to earn our own money and have our own property. We should not depend on our men alone," she says.
It only calls for one person to dream like Rosemary, share with others and influence their lives. The women are not just focusing on growing themselves, but also how far they will impact other people's lives, especially in Korogocho slums.
The sky is their limit.