Aids activists have threatened mass action and a lawsuit against Kenya’s government for its apparent failure to protect HIV-positive people from violence and intolerance.
This follows the brutal murder of Isaiah Gakuyo, a frail 15-year-old boy who had been living with Aids. He was killed with a pitchfork through the brain two weeks ago at a homestead in a village near Nyeri, central Kenya. Gakuyo’s 26-year-old uncle, with whom he had been residing, has since disappeared.
The horrific circumstances leading up to the teenager’s death have shocked the Kenyan public and resulted in demands for laws to protect HIV-positive people. The incident has also highlighted the devastating effect the Aids pandemic is having on life in rural Africa.
According to inhabitants of Wandumbi village, who asked not to be named, Gakuyo’s life was a litany of abuse. He suffered persecution from birth, they said. After he was born HIV-positive, Gakuyo’s father, who died from an Aids-related sickness, shunned him. When the boy’s mother died when he was a toddler, he was placed in the care of a series of family members, who also gradually succumbed to the disease.
Gakuyo was recently forced to live with one of his last-surviving relatives, his young uncle. The mistreatment intensified. “Community members have told me that Isaiah was not allowed to sleep in the house with the other people,” said Asunta Wagura, spokesperson for the Kenya Women’s Network of People Living with HIV/Aids (Kenwa).
“He was made to sleep in a chicken cage. Other relatives were forbidden from speaking to Isaiah, and his eating utensils were marked so that no one else would use them. He suffered vicious beatings almost every day.”
Villagers who witnessed the attack on Gakuyo refused to help. “They thought that if they pulled the fork out of his head, and the boy’s blood got on to them, they would get Aids,” an eyewitness said.
Gakuyo had been receiving anti-retroviral therapy at a Kenwa operated treatment centre. The group often sheltered him and pleaded with authorities for protection. “But no one listens to us when we beg for the rights of HIV-positive orphans,” Wagura sighed.
Despite a public outcry, and widespread reaction from international human rights groups, not a single Kenyan government authority has commented on the tragedy. Local and foreign activists are furious; they feel it has negated their efforts to fight discrimination against people living with Aids.
The murder happened in the constituency of MP Wangari Maathai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her courageous efforts to safeguard Kenya’s environment. But she, too, hasn’t said a word. Aids activists aren’t surprised: Maathai has maintained a silence on HIV/Aids since being castigated for controversial statements she’d made about the disease.
Speaking at a conference in Nairobi shortly before she received the prize, Maathai stated that Aids had been created in a Western laboratory as a means of controlling black populations. She later denied making the statement, even after diplomats who’d attended the function confirmed it, but has since called for more research to determine the “true origins” of the virus.
The Coordinator of the National Empowerment Network of People Living with HIV/Aids in Kenya, Inviolata M’Mbwavi, is also enraged by the official silence surrounding Gakuyo’s murder. “The government officials are making me sick,” adding that President Mwai Kibaki had been “quick” to declare last Friday a “national day of prayer” after 14 officials died in a plane crash.
An insurance company had also granted the families of five MP’s who died in the accident almost $1-million in compensation.
“But who is praying for Isaiah? Where is Isaiah’s insurance pay out? There is one law for the rich and another for the poor in Kenya. Some lives are cheap, others are worth more,” M’Mbwavi scoffed.
Wagura, whose organisation works with groups across the continent to advocate for the rights of HIV-positive people, appealed for Gakuyo’s case not to be seen in isolation.
“People are being killed all over Africa just because they have Aids. Their communities see them as sub-human. We hear about the cases every day, but governments tell us: ‘leave it alone; it is a family matter’ â€¦ The murder of Isaiah will not be the last,” Wagura predicted.
African states have been slated for viewing the fight against the pandemic as merely handing out anti-retroviral drugs. “Isaiah was getting medicine but, in the end, this didn’t prolong his life.
“What Kenya, and the whole of Africa, needs is intense public education campaigns, to educate the public that people living with Aids are human beings who deserve life, not to be slaughtered like animals and discriminated against,” M’Mbwavi said.
Wagura added: “It is not only pills that save; we need laws. Most countries in Africa don’t have laws to protect HIV-positive people from stigma.”
Correction published on May 12 2006
In the article “Aids teen murdered” (April 28 to May 4), the Mail & Guardian reported on the vicious slaying of 15-year-old, HIV-positive Isaiah Gakuyo at a village in central Kenya.
The report noted that “not a single Kenyan government authority” had commented on, or condemned, the murder, raising the ire of people living with HIV/Aids. Aids activists were particularly scathing in their criticism of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Wangari Maathai.
The Green Belt Movement, an international environmental group founded by Maathai, has since pointed out that Maathai condemned Gakuyo’s murder in Kenya’s Standard newspaper on April 18. In it, she expressed sadness that a boy could be killed simply because he was HIV-positive, and that the brutality Gakuyo had suffered was indicative of the stigma confronting those infected with HIV.
Maathai had spent “Easter Monday with HIV/Aids patients from her constituency”, the Standard reported. She had also met about 80 people to devise strategies to care for those living with the disease, particularly orphans, the article reflected.
Maathai is quoted as saying that Gakuyo’s killer may have been driven to the act by trauma.
“Our brothers and sisters who are either HIV-positive or taking care of the infected people are equally traumatised. Trauma is a disease which counsellors should address,” Maathai said, “We have agreed that in every location there must be a committee of people living with HIV/Aids, which will ensure that the children get at least one meal per day.”