Yes, I can almost guess your reaction to the title of today’s article. It’s probably a mixture of surprise, fear, excitement, worry and the desire to quickly get on with the article to find out whether I’m writing about myself. Relax, this article is not about me but about the fact that many years down the road, it is still difficult for people to freely speak about their HIV status.
We have made it difficult for people to admit they are living with HIV because of the way we react when they air that out. Today, it is much easier for someone to say they have cancer which in many cases is more life threatening, than to say they have HIV due to the stigma attached to the latter. The end result is silence around the disease which enables those affected to continue spreading it. In my short time in Rwanda, I am yet to see a sign directing people on where to go for HIV testing and counselling. I am, therefore, wondering whether it’s because the disease is not prevalent, or because they just don’t talk about it. Guess I’ll find out sooner or later.
A few years ago a lady contacted me through Facebook requesting to meet because she needed to talk to someone. I gave her an appointment and she showed up as agreed. She was a beautiful girl, educated and could hold her end in any conversation. Her reason for seeing me was to talk about her previous life experience. She had just returned to Kampala from an up-country town where she’d been residing and where she worked as a prostitute to earn a living. Her clientele comprised the young, the old, the single, the married, and the influential, name them. I stared on as she poured her heart out. She was here because she had an urge to reform and she needed someone to assure her that it was not too late. I did that. I am a firm believer in second chances and I know that it is never too late to change as long as it’s a personal decision. We spent hours together and to cap it all I asked her to accompany me to a clinic. I took her to a small clinic in my neighbourhood where the attendants were my friends.
She had never done an HIV test. Considering she had told me that she had slept with clients countless times without protection because they paid more, it was no surprise when her HIV status was positive. I watched as she broke down after receiving her results and I sat with her through her first counselling session. My friends ensured that she was put on Anti-Retroviral drugs (ARVs) and a proper medical regimen. The lady and I have remained in touch to date. She still takes her medicine and is doing well by any standards.
The moral of this article is to remind us that the HIV battle is far from over and it does not help to be silent about it. That is what stigmatisation breeds; your reaction will either send a person out on a silent revenge mission to spread the disease or they will acknowledge that there’s so much more to life than one’s HIV status. Today, by being there for an HIV infected person, you can ensure that they’re not the reason why the next person gets infected. That next person could be you or me so let’s spread some love and acceptance.
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