Monique Wanjala "I thought I couldn't get the virus, but no one is safe from it."

Monique Wanjala, training facilitator in the Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) program in Kibera, Nairobi, has been on antiretroviral therapy since early 2004.

Monique Wanjala, training facilitator in the MSF program in Kibera, Nairobi, has been on antiretroviral therapy since early 2004. She speaks about her life and her work with MSF.

 Listen to Monique speak

I worked in the hotel sector in 1994 and I had an opportunity to further my education in Europe. Before leaving, I took an AIDS test in a private clinic. The result was positive. I refused the European offer. I apologized, but explained that I was not the best candidate.

– Monique Wanjala

Monique Wanjala, 33, remembers every detail of this moment that changed her life. This radiant young woman now coordinates the training courses offered by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to health workers and patients in the HIV/AIDS program in Kibera, a large slum in Kenya's capitol city, Nairobi. "I coordinate and organize the training courses that we offer to personnel and beneficiaries of the program. There are medical and non-medical courses, all focusing on HIV/AIDS. It's important for our doctors and nurses, for example, because the HIV/AIDS domain evolves rapidly. It's equally important for the patients, allowing them to receive information and be more involved in the program."


"A reminder"


In her private life, Monique looks after two children: a boy of 13 and a girl of 15, both of whom are HIV-negative. She shares her life with her partner. "He's HIV-positive as well. He has always supported me and has been by my side during all these years spent with HIV/AIDS."

If the discovery of her HIV status 11 years ago was a difficult moment, Monique considered it a "reminder". "I thought that the virus only affected people in the slums and that I could never get it. I was wrong. No one is safe. Everybody can get it. But it doesn't necessarily mean that you are going to die."

Monique decided to become involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS. She joined an international organization as a regional coordinator for the defense of women's rights. "In Kenya, around 60% of people infected with HIV/AIDS are women. Yet they are left to one side because of their difficulties in accessing antiretroviral treatment. I became very passionate about the cause."

At the time, Monique worked at a frantic rhythm. She criss-crossed the region, spreading her messages far and wide. But her immune system, weakened by the virus, could not keep up the pace. That was at the beginning of 2004. "My CD4 level (which indicates the condition of the patient's immune system) had dropped to 50. I was surprised because it was really low. I had to accept the inevitable: starting ARV treatment. I registered in MSF's program at Mbagathi Hospital."

"I have never been hospitalized in my life. In a way I am 'blessed' because I discovered my HIV-positive status early. I monitored my health and adapted my diet accordingly. But I was never ill." Monique's story shows how it is possible to live with HIV for years without developing AIDS, the phase that brings symptoms of illness.


Continuing to work


Battling AIDS in a slum setting like Kibera is not easy for Monique. "MSF manages to understand the reality of the slums and respect the culture of the population, which has a large component of Muslims. We have to adapt our messages and involve the local communities in order to achieve results in this very particular setting."

In the future, she dreams of continuing the work started by MSF in Kibera and of reaching other populations in need. "MSF has demonstrated that it is possible to offer ARV treatment by involving all the local actors concerned. This should serve as a model. A model that we could duplicate and apply in other districts or even further away".