Surviving the stigma of HIV and Aids

“IF I HAD education, like a degree or something and I was not HIV positive, I would have taken that cousin of yours. Reuben, that one, I tell you, he is a man among men,” said Chandisaita. She said this two weeks ago, before the harmonised elections, when we were enjoying a barbecue and sunset at Mereki, with Reuben, my cousin visiting from Australia. Chandi gazed admiringly at Reuben walking towards the bar carrying three empty beer bottles for replacements.

Piri said Reuben was married and not available.
“As if that has stopped you from chasing after married men yourself in the past,” quipped Chandi.

“If women were so moral and upright the way you want to pretend, would there be small houses everywhere? Tibvirepo! In Zimbabwe, speaking truth, how many single women would turn down a man like Reuben because he is married? How many?”

The question was addressed to me. But I was busy trying to work out how an HIV-positive person would reveal her status to a potential lover. What about the stigma?
Until a couple of weeks ago, I had not met Chandisaita before. Chandi is my cousin Piri’s old friend and new business partner. They had not seen each other since Operation Murambatsvina, the clean-up operation several years ago. Then they ran into each other at a rally during the recent election campaigns.

Chandi has brown or chocolate-coloured skin, round smooth face, a small gap between her teeth, thick legs like she does a lot of workouts, short locks twisted and dyed ginger brown.

In her late 30s, divorced with two teenage children.  Chandi is open, aggressive and more direct with her speech than Piri. She sells second-hand shoes from bales of clothes from overseas. Piri has since joined the business, selling second-hand lingerie, jeans and skirts from America.

Chandi talks about her HIV-positive status quite openly.
“Do not tell Reuben that you are HIV positive,” Piri told Chandi.

Chandi then said she would not say so. But soon as Reuben handed Chandi another beer, she said, “I am supposed to go easy on beer because of my HIV status. I am on the programme. Ndiri pachirongwa.” Piri shuffled around nervously waiting for Reuben’s response. I looked uneasily towards the bare hills above Mereki shops.

Reuben did not look at all surprised. Instead, he said, “It is good that you are open about your status, sister.  Are you on treatment?” Reuben asked and Chandi nodded.

“I was very ill last year, just losing weight, loss of appetite, strange rush and headaches that did not end. One day I collapsed in a kombi on my way from Mozambique to buy a bale of shoes. A friend in the kombi told me to go to New Start at the Wilkins Hospital and I did. I tested HIV positive. My CD4 count was so low. They put me on a starter pack and I was very ill from it; vomiting, diarrhoea and loss of appetite. They said the immunity soldiers in my body were reacting badly to the treatment. After almost two months, my body accepted the treatment and now, look at me, I am living well and I eat well. HIV does not like hunger, poverty and stress.”

“And it does not like new lovers either. Once you tell people you have HIV, forget that you will ever meet a man. You will be a nun for the rest of your life,” said Piri.
Chandi quickly said that that was not true at all. Once you disclose your status, you will meet people with the same status and if you are both on treatment, you can support each other and live a normal life. Reuben said, “I salute you, sister. There is still a lot of stigma against people with HIV and Aids. The more people are prepared to say Aids is just a disease and there is treatment for it, the better for everyone. Some years back, people would not even share food from the same plate with someone with Aids.”

“How often do you get tested?” Chandi asked all of us.
Piri avoided the question and conveniently spotted someone she knew standing near Mai Fungai’s stand. She called him over to join us. The conversation on HIV and Aids ended right there.   But it resurfaced the next day when we had to drop Chandi very early at the Wilkins Hospital. Although she lived in Chitungwiza, she had somehow managed to convince the staff that she could only go to the Wilkins to collect her anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) and get her CD4 count done regularly with them.

We drove through the gate at Wilkins and Chandi pointed to the brown and grey building on the left side. “That is the New Start Centre, where you get tested for HIV,” Chandi said.

Piri and I just nodded and said nothing. I parked the car. We accompanied Chandi to the other block across a garden; where there were many people sitting along the bench on the hospital verandah and others standing in line.  Piri said it was all too sad and she did not want to be seen by anyone she knew.

“My chances of meeting a good man would slide down very quickly if they think I might be HIV positive,” Piri said, hurrying back to the car quickly.
“Let’s go, Sis.”
I stood outside the car looking at the nurse counsellors going into the New Start Centre.

“Piri, have you been tested for HIV?” I deliberately repeated Chandi’s question from yesterday.  Piri shrugged her shoulders and closed the door. We all knew that her former husband Misheki was quite unwell, back in the village.
“You should be tested,” I said.

“There is nothing wrong with me.  I am healthy, I am not coughing, I do not have a strange rash, and I am much fatter than I have ever been. What if I get tested and I am positive?  Then I begin a life of sleepless nights wondering when I will die? Leave me alone, will you?”

She looked visibly angry. But I was not going to let her off the hook like that. We were already here at the New Start Centre. “Iwe, Piri, huya utestiwe. There is treatment these days,” I said, ordering her to be tested with the authority of an older sister. “Ndati handisikuda,” she said, flatly refusing to leave the car.

Then she launched back at me: “How many people have been tested in the village at the clinic only to be told there is no treatment unless they go all the way to Murambinda or Hwedza? Where do you get the money for the kombi? Where do they test you for your CD4 count? Do not tell me to get tested unless I know the treatment will be available for me all the time. If you start treatment and then you stop, they say you will die.” She folded her arms and stared into space.

I left Piri alone and went back to Chandi. I found her sitting between two men, engaged in a very lively conversation with them and another older woman.   What I had earlier seen as sadness and misery was nowhere to be seen. People were noisy, talking and laughing holding their cards waiting in line.  A shared burden is lighter to carry.

I tapped Chandi on the shoulder and asked her to leave the queue for a little while and come with me back to the car. She told the two men to look after her spot. Following me to the car, she said, “The stories you hear from the people are so funny. That older lady you saw gets driven here by her daughter-in law. Imagine what good understanding they have between them. But her son does not even know that his mother is on treatment. That is okay too. And those two men next to me, I think one of them likes me . . . ”  I interrupted Chandi and asked her to convince Piri that it was best to know her HIV status and prepare her life for the future.

Back at the car, Chandi spoke to Piri and counselled her to accept the test. “So what if you test positive? What is new?”  In the end, Piri said she would only get tested for HIV if I was tested together with her.

“But what has that got to do with me? I am not your partner,” I said.
I really did not like the sudden turn and focus on me.  I tried to wriggle out of it and lost.

Chandi went back to her spot in the line for treatment. Piri and I then agreed that we were not going to show our results to each other after being tested.  It was entirely up to her to tell me or not to tell.  But I knew that Piri was not capable of keeping anything to herself, be it good news or bad news.

We walked into the New Start Centre. The lady at the reception was very friendly and welcoming. She told us to sit on the chairs and wait to be called. Piri sat there, stiff and frozen, looking straight ahead at nothing. What if she was positive? What if I was positive? The sexual journey is a part of life. We travel it because we are people.  Tiri vanhu. We meet people, we fall in love, we marry and we have children. One day we might get sick from an Aids-related illness or from something else. One day we will die. That is just the way we are created. Masikirwo.

There was plenty of information on HIV and Aids on a table nearby and on the wall. I flipped through the leaflets of information placed conveniently for people like us to read.  The first signs and symptoms of HIV: the opportunistic infections; what to eat when you are positive and what exercises to do. There was a leaflet  saying New Start was funded by the US president’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR) through the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and that New Start provides HIV counselling and testing services to couples, families and individuals alike.

The receptionist at New Start wanted our first names only.  Piri gave a false English name. We were given a number and we paid a dollar each. Then we joined a few people in the waiting area. There was an uneasy silence as we all pretended to watch ZBC playing gospel songs by Vabati VaJehova and other Apostolic faith groups. Piri fumbled around with her fingers and even bit them on and off. I was a little nervous too. What if I am HIV positive?

Piri was called in first into one room and I went into another room for pre-test counselling. There were many questions: Why do you want to be tested? Why did you not bring your partner? Are you in a new relationship? Have you taken any risks before?  What if you are positive, what will you do? What if you are negative, what will you do?

I got my finger prints taken and I was told this was for statistics, though I was not so sure about the reason.  Then I was given a needle prick and blood was taken. The counsellor told me to join the others in the waiting room again for 15 minutes.

Again, there was no talking at all. Just an uneasy silence and irritating gospel songs on the television. The two women and one man who came before us went in for their results in different rooms. Then one by one they came out, expressionless and walked straight out of the door.  Were they positive or negative? Who do you ask? We could not tell.

Piri went in for her results. While she was inside, I was called into another room by a different counsellor.  She gave me the paper with my results. I thanked her and I was given more counselling advice.

I was definitely not going to divulge my HIV status to Piri or to anyone. One must guard their own privacy. Piri was already back at the car. She had her phone glued to one ear, dancing slowly, like someone who had just gone mad. She was singing an old gospel song about freedom called Ndasunungurwa, tendaiwo Mwari. I have been set free, praise be to God.

“So, that is the news?” I asked. The smile and laughter said it all.
“Sis, given the journeys I travelled and the people I met and ate with, I am standing here by the grace of God. There are people who do not deserve to get HIV. Then there are people like me who should be positive by now. We were reckless long before we knew about HIV.  In my past life, I had joy. Aiwa, joy, vasikanawe, ndakapinda.  But a rabbit does not survive a veld fire twice,” Piri said.

“Tsuro haipone rutsva kaviri. From today, I shall go to church and live an upright life,” Piri said.  Who was she fooling? Piri loves her beer. But we will wait and see.
Then Piri asked about my results. I said that was a very personal question.

“Suit yourself,” she said and danced around the car some more, singing Oliver Mtukudzi’s song, “Tinorarama neraki”.   We are not saints. Some of us survive HIV and Aids and the stigma associated with it because there is treatment. And some of us survive out of sheer luck.

Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic. She holds a PhD in International Relations and works as a development consultant.

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