The following post was written by guest writer, Pamgrace Gachenge, founder and executive director of PAUSE Project.
I was in my room watching TV when I heard my mother scream from the kitchen. I ran downstairs to find her on the floor crunched in a fetal position with the phone to her ear. “Mommy, Mommy, are you ok?” I yelled. With barely enough breath her crackled voice uttered, “He is dead!”
Wrapping my mother in my teenage arms, I couldn’t find the words to comfort the strongest person I knew. For hours she sobbed, “Why, why, why Peter?”
That day I lost an uncle, but my mother lost her best friend and beloved brother.
In 2006, my uncle, Peter Kathuri Gichobi, died of AIDS in Nairobi, Kenya. His death not only crippled my family, but dug a permanent hole in my mother’s heart. He was our anchor—a charming, fearless entrepreneur with a loving heart and a helping hand.
At that time, I could only imagine the emotional trauma his daughter experienced. That was until I went through an unfortunate experience of my own
It was my second day at a new job when I received a call from my mother. She was in Kenya visiting at the time and called my sister and I regularly. I looked forward to her updates that often came with entertaining stories. But this particular call felt a little different—there was no excitement in her voice, and from that moment I knew something was wrong.
When the awkward silence past, my mother gently said, “I’m sorry Pammie, your father has passed away.” In all of my life, I could hardly remember how it felt to be loved by him, but in that moment, the pain of losing him was real.
I had dreamt before that my father and I would someday have a meaningful conversation, a relationship even.
My parents divorced when I was 2 and my father moved back to Kenya. I never had much communication, contact, or support from him. In 2003, I started receiving letters—ill-frequent letters that only asked how I was doing and said little about himself.
I held on to my dream in hopes to one day I finally get answers. I found comfort in saying my father lived in Kenya, but now I tense up when I say father is dead. My dream deferred no longer lives.
When you receive a phone call informing you that your loved one has died, you can’t help but ask, “God, why?” Everyone tried forcing me to accept my father and uncle died simply because they were “sick”—but there was more to the story. While I asked all of the right questions, I received all of the wrong answers. But there were whispers for years of my father’s illness, so I searched and soon found that both my father and uncle died from this sexually transmitted infection. At that moment, I had to acknowledge all the stereotypes and stigma that our society has attached to people living with HIV/AIDS.
Once I gave up crying and being frustrated, I realized their deaths didn’t have to happen.
From these tragedies came the birth of PAUSE Project, a nonprofit I founded to create a place where youth can exercise and ignite their own power. I designed the organization to invigorate a proactive state of mind when it comes to sex, sexual health, and HIV/AIDS, while being a friendly, all-inclusive environment. At PAUSE Project, open dialogues go beyond institutionalized sexual education and provides resources driven towards sexual orientation, overall sexual health, and best practices. It has been through my work with PAUSE Project that I have become closer to my father.
As a resident of the greater DC metropolitan area, the need for resources like PAUSE Project are incredibly needed. We serve two of the top 25 cities with the highest HIV infection rates: District of Columbia (DMV) being 5th and Baltimore–Towson the 6th. Even without the losses of my family members, these statistics alone are enough to make me care about eradicating the stigma and miseducation around HIV/AIDS.
I share my story with the hope that the number of stories similar to mine are never told because we stopped them before they happened.
I grew up in a family that is too proud to call HIV/AIDS by any other name than “a thing.” As a result, we lost two important men in my life.
I ask that others share my story and that it is enough for them to care. We all have busy lives, but there is no sense in waiting until we each have a personal reason to care about HIV/AIDS.
Support PAUSE Project for the Walk to End HIV DC today by sending an e-mail to Pamgrace.