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On the frontline in war against Aids

ICAP regional nursing advisor Africa Judy Khanyola during the interview at The Sankara
ICAP regional nursing advisor Africa Judy Khanyola during the interview at The Sankara, Autograph Collection. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG 

Judy Khanyola’s crowning moment of reward has come over two decades later. She’s set to receive an Excellence Global HIV Nursing Award in Portland, Oregon, for her unwavering dedication as a nurse over this period.

In the 1990s at the height of the HIV/Aids epidemic she left for Uganda to be on the frontline in the fight against Aids.

Her “crusade” saw her work in East, Central and Southern Africa as a result of the pandemic and now recently in Sierra Leone and DR Congo following the Ebola Virus Disease outbreaks in those countries.

Her HIV in Africa won her the Association of Nurses in Aids Care (ANAC) Global Award.

A holder of a Masters degree in Advancing Health Care Practice from University of Manchester, Judy is the Africa Representative for Nursing Now the global campaign that is raising the status and profile of nurses.

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She also sits on the AFREhealth Governing Council and is also the Regional Nursing Advisor, Africa at Columbia University. She met JACKSON BIKO for chai at Sankara Nairobi, Autograph Collection.

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Are your affairs in order?

[Laughs] I really wonder! Because now you’re asking me about my own mortality and I don’t have an answer to that, which is ironic because all my career I have seen and continue to see people facing their own mortality all the time. What I would want my family to remember me fondly.

Of course you want to leave your children financially stable but also remember mummy through various things. So, I have a box that my grandma gave me, that has trinkets and things that I’ve picked over the years for my children to remind them of me. I want to give it to my daughter Natasha at a certain point.

Tell us something very interesting about nursing that we don’t know. Most people think nursing is a certificate course. It’s not. My undergraduate degree was in nursing. Also many people don’t know that nursing requires a lot of studying of science, the human anatomy, to understand how the body works.

I can put a tube through your nose to feed you, not everybody can do that. Delivering a baby requires skill. Nursing requires deep compassion every day of your working life. Not everybody can handle that because its tasking.

What are you very proud of, in terms of your body of work but perhaps also just your life outside of what you do professionally?

I have surmounted many obstacles. Nursing is not a glamorous career and so being one and getting where I am, I hope has shown that it matters little what you do, but the amount of passion you through at it. I’m also proud of the kind of ed,ucation I have given my children. My daughter is 23 and I have twin boys who are 20.

When I was working and living in Uganda we wanted them to join boarding schools which people thought we couldn’t afford. But I went those schools and said I want to have my children school here, even when I didn’t really know how we could afford it.

So my daughter went to St. Andrew’s Turi and my sons went to Waterford in Swaziland. I didn’t have the millions people say you need for these schools.

What’s been your biggest challenge in life?

I don’t want to overstate this but being a woman comes with certain challenges in the workplace which you just learn to manoeuvre. I’m a nurse, I work primarily with doctors who were predominantly male.

Being a nurse most people think you don’t have knowledge and often I’d find myself in a room full of male doctors who expect you to serve them. I have had to always make it clear that we are colleagues and that I’m a professional.

But also I have had immense moment of pride, for instance when working at Aga Khan University Hospital a male doctor insisted that we were not going to do a kidney transplant without me being present in the team. I was eight months pregnant and he insisted that I could do it, he exhibited confidence in me and that kind of experience stays with you.

What are you struggling with right now?

I’m struggling with retiring cause I think I should retire, do other things, but I still think that what I’m doing is important. So I don’t know how to do the two because there is a point you want to pull back and let others do it but still feel there’s so much more you can do. I’m also struggling with letting my children go. The empty nest syndrome is coming fast behind my heels

Talking of which, you are turning 50 in a few weeks time, is that symbolic or is it just one of those birthdays?

Oh, there is a lot of excitement because my friends are planning a big party at Great Rift Valley Lodge for two days. My husband is not happy because it’s going to cost him a lot of money. [Chuckles]. This is big because I have never celebrated my birthday since I was an adult.

Fifty is symbolic. It’s where you stop to look back and question what you have done. At this point I’m not so young to have done nothing and I’m not so old to be too tired to do more. And then they say 50 is the new 30 - we’re 20 years old with 30 years experience (Laughs). I still feel energetic to give back and there’s time to do that.

Would you do anything differently at any stage in your life?

[Pause] I wasted a lot of time wanting people to like me, fitting into a certain role. Trying to please people, trying to be part of the party.

What are your fears for your 23-year old daughter?

What I fear most that she makes the wrong choice of a spouse. I think if you’re in a bad marriage or a bad relationship, it really takes its toll on you life as a professional and as a human being.

As a mother, I would really want somebody who will be her companion, her friend and walk with her life journey. I’m constantly praying for her.

How do you reward yourself for being a mother, a professional, a tenant of planet earth doing her bit?

Do we really have time to reward ourselves? What is reward? [Pause] No. I don’t reward myself. You live life that’s what you are supposed to do. Get it done and move on. But maybe winning this award is a reward in itself; people have recognized what I’ve done.

I have a great set of friends, maybe that’s a reward. I have a great husband who says,“ I’m not going anywhere if you’re not coming” which is nice coming from a Luhya man who does not demonstrate his affection. [Laughs]. But I know that he loves me and he supports me. I wouldn’t have done a lot of these if he hadn’t supported me.

Are you a lover or a fighter?

I love to love.

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