Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Judith’s Story: Common Tragedy, Uncommon Resolve

June 07, 2012

This story originally appeared on worldpulse.com, an action media network powered by women from 190 countries. World Pulse's mission is to lift and unite women’s voices to accelerate their impact for the world. Through their growing, web-based platform, women are speaking out and connecting to create solutions from the front lines of today’s most pressing issues.

In partnership with the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), World Pulse collected personal stories from grassroots women leaders worldwide, outlining their perspectives on sustainable and equitable development for presentation at the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development June 20-22. Read more stories on their Rio+20 interactive map.

Growing up the sixth child in a family of ten in a small village in Siaya County was not the positive experience that it should have been. Having come from a large and poor family, my siblings and I went through a lot of challenges. My parents struggled to make ends meet: my father with his meager pay from his job in Nairobi, and my mother as a housewife at our rural village home.

Things became even worse when both our parents died of HIV/AIDS within a short span of each other. We had to find ways and means to survive and go to school at the same time. The rejection we went through in our own community, with neighbors ostracizing us, only added insult to the injury.

 
We were considered outcasts in our own community and even our close friends whom we trusted did not want to be associated with us.

Both our parents having died without their first born son being married or having built a house, our homestead was "closed down" in accordance with Luo custom and traditional beliefs: i.e. we, the remaining children, could not step foot into what was once our family home, and had to rely on relatives in neighboring areas to take us in. We were considered outcasts in our own community and even our close friends whom we trusted did not want to be associated with us. The story was the same in school. I can remember that nobody wanted to sit close to us, share a seat or even shake hands with us due to fear of being infected.

The struggle and fight of living with HIV/AIDS did not end there. Our last born brother, who was born HIV positive, was under our care, incapacitated by recurrent infections. Medication was very expensive at that time, and it reached a point where we could not take good care of him at home; we arranged to find him a caring place in an AIDS orphanage in Nairobi, Cotolengo Orphanage, where he tragically died a year later at the age of seven.

Despite of all the struggles and unspeakable horrors that we went through in our community, I still had hopes that one day life would change for the better. I worked hard and successfully completed both my primary and secondary education, even after dropping out of school several times. I never gave up or thought of getting into an early marriage, as most of the girls in my community do. With the help of some relatives and the bursary I received from the Rattansi Education Trust, I joined Kenya Utalii College, where I did a 2-year Certificate Program and graduated with honors. I then got a job with the Norfolk Hotel as a housekeeping supervisor, a position I held for a period of five years.

Being very ambitious and always wanting to move to greater heights, I enrolled at the Kenya Polytechnic College as a part-time student alongside my job at the hotel, and completed my Diploma in Business Management. Besides sponsoring my own studies, I still had the responsibility of taking care of my siblings and other needy relatives. In 2010 I was selected for a scholarship through the U.S. Department of State to further my studies and improve my skills. On June 16, 2010 I left for the United States to further my studies. Though I never expected to reach this far, I was very excited because studying in the USA was one of my life-long dreams.

 
I do not want women/young girls in my community to go through the same negative experiences that I went through.

My studies/stay in the USA was the greatest experience in my life, and I was greatly impressed by the quality of education in the country. I was also fascinated by the close relationships, love, respect and the family feelings within the community where I lived. My friends enjoyed my company, but little did they know that beneath my happy exterior lay an undercurrent of despair, pain and rejection, only tempered by courage, hope and resolve to reclaim my life. I worked hard and graduated yet again with honors and came back to Kenya in August 2011. My employer, the hotel, had given me study leave before I departed, but a short time into my studies demanded that I send a letter of resignation, which I reluctantly did. Since my return, I have not been able to get another job, something which is very discouraging, considering the long path that I have gone through.

Despite my struggles, sadly very common in my home community, I believe that I have a responsibility to make a difference. I do not want women/young girls in my community to go through the same negative experiences that I went through. Having been an orphan from a large and poor family, I believe that I am well positioned to help young girls and woman who face the same challenges.

The road to achievement has not been easy; I have struggled to make ends meet and also to lend a hand to the less fortunate. Because of my own personal experiences, I have a different perspective on the world and how people around me should be treated. I believe that my continued pursuit of knowledge and my desire to change the lives of women will make a great difference in my community and contribute to the development of Kenya as a nation.

Since 2007, I have been assisting St. Alice Angel’s Academy, a community-based primary school located in Bondo District, which educates girls between 3 and 13 years old who have been orphaned (especially by HIV/AIDS) or are from impoverished local families. I have been donating clothes, food, books, and even the little money that I can spare (sometimes as little as $20), when I was working. Due to the increasing number of orphans, I am currently trying to write a proposal to mobilize funds to expand the school.

I strongly hope that my long-term commitment and desire to support girl child education in my community will one day bear fruit. The challenges I have faced have inspired me to be a mentor and a role model to other young girls. My hope is that through better education, and improved livelihoods, young girls will avoid early marriages and exposure to HIV/AIDS. It is my commitment to do whatever I can to influence such girls to go to school and get a quality education.

 
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