In-depth: Love in the time of HIV/AIDS
KENYA: Where only HIV-positive people get beyond the velvet rope
Photo: Glenna Gordon/IRIN
Wakesho's events provide entertainment and allow HIV-positive people to socialise
Nairobi, 1 December 2008 (PlusNews) - The party at a popular restaurant in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, looks ordinary, but the people attending it - all of whom are HIV-positive - are enjoying a rare opportunity to socialise without feeling like an outsider.
The young men and women spent the afternoon relaxing and getting to know each other; by the end of the evening new friends had been made, phone numbers exchanged and there were plans to meet again.
"It makes life much easier when everyone at a social gathering knows that you are positive and doesn't judge you for it," said Frank*, a member of the Stacy Care Foundation, which organises events exclusively for people living with HIV.
The social club is first of its kind in Kenya. "Since I discovered my status, it has been really hard to go out and make friends, because you are always keeping this big secret," he said.
Stacy Wakesho, who set up the foundation three years ago, was running a tour business specialising in travel packages for groups of single people when she got a phone call from a young man asking her to arrange an event for HIV-positive people.
"That phone call was a revelation for me - I had never thought about how single people living with HIV socialise or date," she told IRIN/PlusNews. "When I placed my first ads in the paper six months later, the response was unbelievable. Most HIV[-positive] people are afraid of infecting HIV-negative people, so their consciences won't allow them to date normally."
More than 1,000 HIV-positive people have registered since the club started. "The members are mostly young and single, although some are widowed or divorced," she said. They can also afford the one-time 1,000 shilling (US$13) registration fee and the additional charges for every event.
The club makes it possible for HIV-positive people to meet friends, and men and women to get to know each other in a "natural" environment. "I don't believe in setting strangers up; people come to our parties and if they like each other and want to form romantic friendships, they do so without interference from me," Wakesho said.
The greatest benefit of the club is providing comfortable, safe spaces where HIV-positive people can meet. Frank, who has been a member for two years, said the club had transformed his social life. "I have met lots of men and women, many of whom have become firm friends. Recently I met a very special lady through the club; I think our relationship may get to the next level soon."
Because of the likelihood of sexual relationships developing, Wakesho frequently brings in counsellors to talk to club members. The NGO, Family Health International, through its Gold Star Network, has partnered with the Stacy Care Foundation to give reproductive health advice to couples.
"We find that men are usually keen to have sex earlier, even without protection, so usually the women are advised to take control of protection to prevent reinfection, pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections," Wakesho said.
Although club events provide a temporary escape from the secrecy most HIV-positive people live with, stigma and fear still affect relationships; many couples who had met through the club were cohabiting, but most had stopped short of getting married.
"They have fear, they don't know what the future holds - they don't want to take the responsibility of caring for another person whose health is uncertain when their own health is not guaranteed," she said.
"I have met someone really nice, we have a great relationship," said Anne*, who joined in 2007. "I have told my sisters about my status; they know I met a man through the club, but he has never told anyone and refuses to meet my family because he fears they may not accept him, or they may tell other people his status."
Despite these difficulties, she has no regrets about joining. "It is easier than dating someone who is HIV-negative," she said. "We share so much more, and we can be free with each other."