Kenyan Nun Journeying with HIV Patients in Jamaica to Overcome Stigma

Sr. Elizabeth Gathoni of the Assumption Sisters of Nairobi (ASN)
Credit: Sr. Elizabeth Gathoni

For close to a year, Sr. Elizabeth Gathoni of the Assumption Sisters of Nairobi (ASN) has observed immense transformation in the lives of HIV patients who belong to a support group that the nun coordinates in the Catholic Diocese of Mandeville in the Caribbean Island nation of Jamaica.

At the ASN Project for HIV/AIDS, the only one of its kind in the diocese, the patients have different stories of how their lives had taken a turn for the worst when they tested positive for the virus in a country where HIV positive people are still subjected to stigma in all forms, according to Sr. Elizabeth.

“Here, I see the kind of stigma that was known only in the 90’s. People with the disease are chased away by their family members and some die alone in total abandon,” says Sr. Elizabeth.

The Kenyan-born nun adds, “People’s lives change completely when they know that they have the virus.”

In an interview with ACI Africa detailing her work at the ASN program for HIV in the Diocese of Mandeville, the 36-year-old nun narrated the challenges that she has faced while trying to reach out to people infected and affected by HIV.

“The HIV patients are never willing to express themselves in the open. It is a challenge getting them in our photos that our donors request for,” she says.

The situation at her project in the diocese in Jamaica is a far cry from the thriving ASN project that equally targets HIV patients in Naivasha, a town in the Catholic Diocese of Nakuru, just under 100 kilometers northwest of Kenya's capital city, Nairobi.

In Naivasha, hundreds of families whose lives have been turned around by ASN nuns at Upendo village speak freely about the sisters who gave them hope to live after their families rejected them when they were diagnosed with HIV more than two decades ago.

In an interview with ACI Africa in February, Sr. Florence Muia who oversees activities of the state-of-the-art facility noted that the public perception of people infected with HIV had improved.

“Compared to the ‘90s when there was a lot of ignorance and stigma around HIV, I must confess that we are in a better place now. But the war isn’t over yet,” said Sr. Florence, adding that the only challenge that the country faced was preventing new infections.

The ASN nun recounted the dark days of HIV in Kenya when infected people faced the highest degree of stigma.

“Before the president declared HIV a national disaster, around 1999, there was a lot of ignorance about the condition. There was a lot of denial for people who were infected and they faced rejection from people who were close to them,” said Sr. Florence during the February interview with ACI Africa.

She added, “People had many names for HIV and AIDS. They called it “animal”, “monster”, others referred to it as “slim” because of how infected people looked wasted. They thought the disease was contagious and so they locked infected people away in tiny houses and left them there to die.”

Sr. Florence recounted that those infected were secluded even in death.

“When those infected with HIV died, they were buried by well-wishers in polythene bags. People feared being infected by getting in contact with the corpses,” said Sr. Florence.

In the Caribbean Island nation of Jamaica, however, fear of stigma makes people shy away from getting tested for the virus, thereby increasing the probability of infections in a country characterized by what Sr. Elizabeth has referred to as “dangerous merry-making” that sometimes puts them at the danger of spreading the virus.

The 2001 study that examined drug abuse in Jamaica by the National Council on Drug Abuse (NCDA) found that 60 percent of the Jamaican population use marijuana, tobacco and alcohol. Further studies have also linked use of drugs to high prevalence of HIV. The statistics indicated that rigorous HIV-related data among Jamaica’s populations, especially the homeless population, is limited.

All is not gloom for the HIV patients in Jamaica, especially those living within the confines of the Catholic Diocese of Mandeville where the project Sr. Elizabeth is coordinating has been running since 2001. Through this project, the nuns who do not discriminate have gradually won the trust of the patients.

“Over time, the patients have come to learn about the program run by the Catholic Church and how we uphold discreteness. They know that they can find acceptance here,” says Sr. Elizabeth who joined the program in September 2019 after working on different social work projects in Kenya following her initial profession as a member of ASN in 2010.

At Mandeville, the ASN nun works with 150 HIV patients, also referred to as clients, to offer a “comprehensive HIV/AIDS Education” to the patients who the nun says still consider HIV as “a very big thing in their lives.”

The clients attend monthly support group meetings where they share their experiences in hushed tones, only surrounded by those who understand their daily struggles. They then share a meal and part ways at the end of the meeting with enough food to sustain them for weeks until their next meeting.

Those who have been chased away from their homes because they are HIV positive are resettled in new houses that are constructed through the program Sr. Elizabeth coordinates along with Sr. Helen Kisolo, a nurse in charge of the clinic where the clients go for treatment.

The project also runs small income generating projects including goat keeping and poultry and also gives loans to those interested in business. So far, the project has helped 100 people start poultry farming while 20 have been enrolled for the goat project. Some 10 people have been given a financial boost to start small businesses.

With the outbreak of COVID-19, the Sr. Elizabeth says she conducts house visits to distribute food to the clients who no-longer attend meetings due to the regulations that prohibit social gatherings in a bid to contain the spread of the virus.

“There is a sister who works at the Mandeville clinic to treat our clients when they are down with opportunistic infections,” Sr. Elizabeth says referencing her compatriot, Sr. Helen Kisolo, also a member of ASN.

She adds, “I move around a lot yet I haven’t been able to cover half the households. Our clients are mostly very poor people and they can’t afford the bus fare to come to us.”

The home-based care project is the only one of its kind in the diocese that works closely with government health facilities in the country to serve clients who are spread across three regions in Mandeville.

“The government has its own support groups managed by government social workers while we have our own groups. But we sometimes host joint talks and seminars,” says Sr. Elizabeth, adding that government hospitals also refer some of the patients who test HIV positive to the Catholic-run program.

Travelling long distances to reach clients is not the only challenge that Sr. Elizabeth grapples with.

“There is very high insecurity in this side of the country, and it could be attributed to the dangerous use of drugs, she says, adding, “Earlier in the year, some people stole our car from our residence and I had to stay for two months without doing any outreach activity. I only resumed work after we bought another car because my clients come from very far.”

Passion for social work and the fact that she is the only one on the program in the whole diocese keeps Sr. Elizabeth moving on despite the challenges.

"I am grateful for the support I receive from two sisters in our ASN community here in Jamaica, Sr. Helen Kisolo and Sr. Agnes Mwongela," she says.

“There are times I really feel overwhelmed and then I remember that many people look upon me to wake up every day and to remind them that their lives matter. And in my experience as a social worker, I have always been passionate about helping people,” the Kenyan-born nun says.


ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.

Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa
[email protected]