Watching her eldest daughter and grandchild walk through her garden towards her, Julia Karugi Kiongera knows what perseverance means every day. She’s a survivor. Julia, 54, is HIV positive and has lost her husband and a son. But, against the odds, she has re-built her life.
Being HIV positive, Julia knows that her anti-retrovirals and a healthy diet are critical to her very existence. In her verdant cottage garden, Julia cultivates a wide range of fruits and vegetables to help her cope with the obligatory daily cocktail of medicine. But as she busies herself in her immaculately kept yard, HIV isn’t the only survival challenge Julia has encountered.
Nine years earlier, she lived in Eldoret in Kenya’s Rift Valley and was the proud mother of two boys and two girls. As the year drew to a close, ethnic violence erupted following Kenya’s 2007 presidential election. Julia’s family was targeted. She and her family were forced to flee their home, spending a day sheltering in a river to avoid detection.
“When I was in the river I wondered why this had happened,” she recalled. “There was a rumor the election had been rigged and I was thinking 'this is not my problem'. But, then I realized this was a war that had already been planned. If we had known, we would have fled before the elections even took place.”
As they tried to escape the violence, they had further scrapes with death. This included avoiding being locked in a church with 50 other people, which was then set alight. However, Julia still lost a son. To this day, she remains distressed that his body was never identified. And, her husband disappeared. It was a situation that pushed Julia to her limits.
But, her love for her children, her faith and the chilling words of a counselor at a self-help group were the inspiration to continue. “They advised me to start life afresh and try and forget what had happened,” she commented. “They told me if I needed to take care of myself and take my medicine because no one would support us and I’ll die.”
Julia had lost everything. Her home along with the others who fled were either taken over or dismantled. Julia was moved to a camp for Internally Displaced People (IDP), 250 kilometers along the Rift Valley. For almost two years, Julia and her family’s home was a simple canvass tent with a mattress on the ground. While they were safe, the extreme climate swings from scorching heat to cruel cold with heavy rains that drenched everything they owned made life almost unbearable.
Today, sitting under the shade of a papaya tree in her garden, Julia often thinks about the past. “There was a lot of wind, no trees, no grass, and no water source nearby,” she said. “The only water that was available came from a salty hot spring. We fetched with jerry cans that became so hot that they would burn our backs.”
To help resettle the IDPs, the government gave them some money. The IDPs in turn banded together, pooled their resources and bought land in Maai Mahiu, near Naivasha. It was then that Habitat for Humanity entered her life. Julia and her community became aware of Habitat Kenya when it started building homes in neighboring Amani.
After witnessing houses being constructed in a nearby camp, Julia was fortunate enough to be selected for a Habitat home. “I prayed to God that one day Habitat would do this for me. Now I have got it (a new home) and am now able to sustain myself.”
Clearly, Julia’s house has given her a sense of security and a platform for personal and economic development. In addition to her garden, Julia has started a crafts business and even opened a little shop, which is built within her compound.
Tavitha Njeri Kiburu, who had known Julia from their previous lives in Eldoret, witnessed the change in Julia. “Julia was broken by her experience in Eldoret,” she commented. “But once her home was built, she focused on rebuilding her life. She started making money through basket weaving and beaded jewelry as well as through her shop.”
The connection between the two women is close. Tavitha was approached by Habitat as part of a disaster response program to build homes. Appointed Chairlady of the community, Tavitha was asked to oversee the construction of 15 homes—one of which was Julia’s. In total, between 2009 and 2012, Habitat Kenya built 335 houses for IDP in the area.
Julia acknowledges that Habitat was instrumental in inviting other organizations to help her community re-build their lives. Many even became willing buyers of her beads and bags.
The camp, which now houses a community of 226 families, is named ‘Vumilia’, the Swahili word for perseverance. The name aptly describes Julia, who now wishes her good fortune could be shared with those left in the camp still awaiting a home.
Looking back, Julia is glad she continued to take her anti-retrovirals during her darkest days. “Thanks to Habitat I have a new drive and determination so that I forget I am HIV positive,” she said. “I only remember when I take my medicine.”
A quiet leader who put others first
Her words come quietly and mask the reality she faced. Desperately running away from her former neighbors who wanted to kill her. Hiding in a church and fleeing just before it was burnt down. Sleeping rough on the ground and then in a tent for two years. Listening to Tavitha Njeri Kibiru quietly describe what she went through following the 2007 post-election violence in Kenya was chilling. In one day, Tavitha’s life went from being a wife and mother of six to that of a hunted person and refugee.
“A neighbor came by our house and asked why we hadn’t left yet,” she said recalling the afternoon her life changed. “We were told we had better leave by dark or my husband would be killed.” She and her family fled to a police station who turned their backs on them saying the “work must continue”. They ran to a church leaving everything behind, stayed for three days and slept on the floor with no food or water. Suffering from stomach ulcers, she was at wits end when a friend offered her some tea. “That act of kindness gave me the strength I needed to go on.”
She did, but the cost was high. Her husband, affected by the cruelty and killing, left. She was alone and had to take care of her four boys and two girls. When she was finally assigned a tent, she was asked if she could help make a list of all the displaced people who needed a home. Selflessly, she went from tent to tent taking names. When she turned in the list, a relief worker looked it over and asked why her name wasn’t there. Her response was simple—others needed help more. Putting others first led her fellow refugees elect her as their leader and a camp coordinator.
Two years later she moved into a house that Habitat helped build and raised her children—the youngest, a son, 26, still lives with her.
As she looked around, she reflected that things have changed. “Life is good now,” she said. “My heart is at peace. I’m able to do chores and farm. I also raise chickens and grow maize, beans and peas. I tell people to have faith in themselves, work hard, and don’t become dependent. I’m able to help.”
Tavitha is one of more than 300,000 people that were displaced by the violence in 2007. Today, she along with more than 300 families live in a little community in Maai Mahiu, near Naivasha in Kenya.