Dr Joe Muriuki: He was given three months to live…over 30 years ago!

Banks refused to open an account arguing ‘you are going to die anyway’

Profiles in courage: Dr Joe Muriuki marking the World’s Aids Day, five years ago. Today, one’s status is not a big deal, but back in the day, HIV tablets cost Sh3000 a piece, ARVs were eons in the making and Muriuki’s passport was often stamped HIV +ve before flights. [Photo: Courtesy]

By Undercover Reporter 

He had been given three months to live, but by sheer will power, lived over 30 years more. His son was given weeks to live, but is now a scholar.   

Dr Joe Muriuki, the first Kenyan to publicly declare his HIV positive status, when doctors were whisked to remand prison for mouthing  results, succumbed to cancer of the esophagus -not HIV- this Monday. He was 63. He died in the same month the world’s first HIV vaccine by Moderna is undergoing clinical trials in the USA.

But 33 years ago in 1989, Muriuki, then an accounts clerk at the then Nairobi City Council had gradually been shedding weight for three years. He thought it was malaria. But on being diagnosed  HIV positive; doctors gave him 90 days to wrap up his worldly affairs.
Ugandan musician Philly Lutaaya had gone public about his HIV status. Inspired, Muriuki followed suit, with consequences that could have broken many men: He was sacked. Colleagues threw his wooden seat out the window.

His wife, Jane Ngima,  a primary school teacher was transferred, before finally being sacked. Never mind she tested negative. Today, there are home based HIV testing kits. Then, blood samples were taken to America to be tested, would you believe it? Jane was tested eight times…just to be sure.

He was given 90 days to book his appointment with St Peter

Against all odds: Muriuki’s wife, Jane Ngima above, was then 26 when her husband declared he was HIV positive, and three months pregnant with son Eric Munyiri. She was advised to abort. She thumbed her nose at the medics. Both families strongly suggested a divorce. But she stayed put. Munyiri, could later not get admission to a school without a letter from the Minister for Education! Their first born son schooled in Eastlands. But teachers could not mark his books. He finished his schooling in Uganda.
Munyiri later finished among the brightest candidates in the 2003 KCPE and four years later scored an A- in KCSE. He later graduated with a degree in landscaping technology from JKUAT where his father later earned his PhD in public health in 2015.

With 90 days to book his appointment with St Peter, Muriuki decided to relocate to shags, die among his people. But blood relations in rural Nyeri scampered for safety wherever he appeared. Passengers would disembark from matatus and patrons ran away with bills whenever he entered a food joint.

Banks refused to open an account arguing “you are going to die anyway.” Screaming newspaper headlines informed people of a  ‘new killer sex disease’ in a country where the scariest sex curse was ambling awkwardly after contracting kaswende or kisonono from a bar girl, or a woman of the night.

Treating kaswende meant trooping to Casino, that Kanjo clinic in down town Nairobi where nurses who had seen plenty, inquired whether one had taken heavy breakfast. Nodding yes, was followed with a syringe to the butt and as night follows day, the kaswende carrier would fall like a log. A 30-minute coma later, the patient  limped home to heal.

Sunken cheeks like one was whispering a permanent anthem for death

He fought the good fight, finished the race: Dr Joe Muriuki founded Know Aids Kenya and in 1992 was awarded the Guinness Stout Effort Award for Outstanding Courage and the Medal of Courage by the Italian government in 1993.

It was in that environment that doctors in Nairobi had first reported the first cases of HIV in 1985. They were jailed by the regime of President Daniel arap Moi. It was feared, news about HIV in Kenya would “scare wazungus and destabilize tourism.” Many men were found hanging on trees: “Because of Aids, goodbye my lovely wife and everybody,” read one suicide note from a victim inside Karura Forest, Nairobi.

HIV/Aids did not even have a local name. Nicknamed ‘mdudu,’ Ukimwi came later, but the signs were evident: brown wispy hair, thinning frame, protruding ribs, sunken cheeks like one was whispering a permanent anthem for death. Victims, covered in juala, were transported in government Land Rovers for burial by Administration Police who dug graves, dumped stiffs. No Disco Matanga.

And here was Joe Muriuki announcing to the world he was HIV positive! He instantly became a curious, countrywide celebrity more for the shock effect and as cannon fodder for gossip.  


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