Josee Nyiraneza was just in her prime, at the age 22, when she got the worst news of her life: was diagnosed with HIV.
Twenty years ago, the health system was offering minimal help to HIV-infected persons and the level of stigma was at its highest.
At the time, Nyiraneza was working as a maid in Kigali and though she doesn’t like to engage in details of how she contracted the disease, she reveals that she had risky sexual behaviour before she got to know of her status.
She says she was found to be HIV-positive after a series of unsuccessful medical treatment and several tests following one illhealth after another. Doctors had been forced to recommend an HIV test for her.
She spent a month under treatment at the Central University Teaching Hospital of Kigali and as she recovered, she was discharged though her health had weakened.
That was moments after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
“Shortly after my bosses knew of my status, I was fired,” Nyiraneza recalls.
“They told me they were moving to live outside the country, paid me my salary and asked me to go home. Later, I learnt that they never moved anywhere. Today, I am certainly sure that I was fired because of my sero status,” the 42-year-old from Huye District says.
After being ‘laid off’ from the job that earned her a living, Nyiraneza returned back to her home village in the rural Mukura Sector staring at a bleak future.
But the worst awaited her arrival.
Nyiraneza found news of her status had already spread throughout the village and she became the topic of discussions, ridicule and rejection from her village-mates, including her relatives.
“The level of stigma I had to endure once in the village cannot be described. It was extremely and overwhelmingly harsh. No single word can describe what I endured; it is beyond human understanding,” she says. “Everyone rejected me.”
Because of the stigmatisation she endured, she again fell sick but this time with no one to look after her.
“My family thought I was condemned to die so they let me literary rot in the house. But I survived,” Nyiraneza recalls with bitterness.
“I spent six months bedridden at home. I hardly ate and even I lacked water to drink because there was no one to help me and I had no strength to do it myself.”
“It is a miracle that I didn’t die. But perhaps it is also because inside me I had hope that I will make it,” she adds, chuckling.
“And I am not going anywhere soon.”
Marrying an HIV-positive man
Seven years ago, Nyiraneza met a man with whom she would later fall in love.
Jean Hategekimana, 60, had at the time also been diagnosed with HIV and her first wife, with whom he had fathered five children, had passed on earlier.
Nyiraneza and Hategekimana agreed to start a new life together and, in 2007, despite protests from their community and opposition from their relatives, walked down the aisle.
Today, Nyiraneza and her husband still live together and both are on anti-retroviral (ARV) treatment.
“I was well-informed about the disease and what I could do to avoid putting my life to more risks,” Hategekimana says, before exchanging a flirtatious look with his wife.
“In fact, what I wanted was someone who really understood my situation and knew how she could help me.
Society had refused to support me and I found in this woman the source of support, strength and solace I needed,” he adds.
Together, the couple decided they would never bear children and agreed to use all possible ways to protect themselves against risky behaviour.
“From the beginning, I was sure I would not die single,” Nyiraneza says, taking some moments to appreciate an old gold ring on her left wedding finger.
“We agreed to come together, support one another and walk all the way together to overcome the many challenges that come with being HIV-positive,” she says.
“That has helped us to beat the stigma we faced, find hope to live and work to improve our lives. When he is down, I comfort him, when I am down, he does the same for me. That helps us to remain optimistic and live a positive life.”
Besides that, the couple also says being together has helped them to understand well what they need to lead a better life.
“We know which food we must take to remain healthy and we do understand the needs of each other without difficulties. That helps us a lot,” Hategekimana says.
Dr Sabin Nsanzimana, the head of HIV division at the Rwanda Biomedical Centre, said there is no problem with a HIV-positive couple having unprotected sex as a long they have a similar virus strain.
“They have to screen to confirm their virus types. If found different, they have to stick to condom use to avoid re-infection that complicates treatment,” he said.
Additional reporting by Ivan Ngoboka