Source: The Standard
By Joan Barsulai
When Pastor Patricia Sawo was diagnosed with HIV in 1999, she resorted to prayer and fasting, believing that God would heal and restore her back to full health.
But nothing happened and 12 years later, she still has the virus.
For someone with HIV, 12 years is a lifetime; that is what Sawo found out as she initially fought devastating stigma and later, had hundreds of people living with the virus looking up to her for assurance that everything was going to be fine. Now she has taken on a key role of raising public awareness about HIV/Aids as well as challenging churches all over the continent, more so in Kenya, to overcome their culture of discrimination and stigma.
Her fight has attracted international attention and earned her this year’s CNN Hero Award, making her a member of an exclusive club of people who are doing exemplary work to change their communities from all over the world.
She is among this year’s 25 nominees but later in the year, ten of them will be chosen as the most outstanding.
Making it to the top 25 is no mean feat and Sawo has earned her place through extending generosity to the vulnerable and using her not-so-good experience to change the church’s attitude towards people living with HIV.
After living and forgiving an unfaithful spouse for many years, the turning point came in 1999 when one of Sawo’s husband’s lovers died of an Aids-related condition.
This motivated her to go for the test. She was positive but her husband, Francis, tested negative.
The news was devastating.
“It was ironic that I was the one who always encouraged women in the church not to worry about their philandering husbands, because God would protect them, and yet here I was, living with the virus while my husband was okay!”
Confused after the test, Sawo confided in the deacon, who in turn called a meeting with the church leaders.
After the meeting, they decided that it was better to keep this ‘embarrassing secret’ to themselves, while they arranged revival meetings to pray for her healing.
“The church was only willing to offer me support as long as I was willing to keep quiet. And when I gave birth to my baby, they were worried about what people would say if I didn’t breastfeed.”
To avoid raising suspicion, Sawo had to risk exposing her child to HIV by breastfeeding him.
Shortly after, she attended a meeting organised for interdenominational leaders by Handicap International.
Out of desperation, she took the plunge and declared her status in front of 1,500 irate, panic-stricken evangelicals.
Accept to die
Having publicly declared her status, Sawo lost her job, and was swiftly dismissed from the Christian counseling college she was schooling in.
Her landlord kicked her out and she had to move into an unfinished house that had no roof, windows or doors with her children and husband.
They put up cartons and paper bags on the roof for cover.
Amidst all these, her church sent a woman to her house to talk to her.
“She said the pastors had sent her to tell me to accept to die. And in exchange they would offer to help me by getting my daughter a job as a house help for Sh2,000 a month.”
This angered and motivated her to fight back.
She approached Handicap, and with assistance from Ugandan clergymen, they formed the African Network of Religious Leaders Living with or personally affected by HIV/Aids (Anerela+).
She started the Anerela+ Kenyan chapter in 2004, and as the national co-ordinator, helped educate people in her community about HIV, as well as organising regular retreats for church leaders, training them on how to overcome stigma.
Five years ago, she became the East African regional co-ordinator for eleven countries and Peer Fund, UK, asked her to get 100,000 churches to transform 60 million lives.
For three years, she trained church leaders aggressively and spoke in conferences the world over.
“During my time at Peer Fund, I discovered that in every community, where there is no dispensary or police station, there is always a church. I knew that church were the one place that could end HIV or eliminate its stigmatisation altogether.”
Together with her husband (who has since passed on — in 2009), she founded Discover to Recover Centre, which was initially to provide shelter to those infected once they came to see her for spiritual support.
But as the parents died, there was need for a place to keep the orphans.
Now she shelters 58 of them and takes care of another 50 orphans living with relatives.
Sawo solely relies on a well-wisher who sends her $500 (Sh46,000) a month for upkeep.
It is this money she uses to feed and educate the orphans.
Years after facing hostility in church, Sawo says the attitude towards HIV/Aids has improved.
“When they first come in for our workshops, they are usually angry with us for ‘wasting money’. But by the third day, they usually pledge go back and raise awareness about Aids in their churches.”
But there are other churches that are worse off, which “insist that HIV is a curse. But I will not give up my crusade till all church leaders accept the reality.”
Her big heart, determination and desire to see things get better for the infected and affected are enough for this remarkable woman to earn recognition.
Now she sees her journey with the virus as a learning experience.