HIV: mixed-status couple speak out
Attacking stigmas and educating the public help others cope in their relationships
FALLING in love is easy; being in a relationship with someone who is HIV-positive is harder.
Dimakatso Mookodi and her husband, Kabo, are proof that being in a mixed-status relationship can work, if there is open communication and careful management of their sexual relationship.
It was 13 years ago that Dimakatso, then a 22-year-old drama student, discovered she was HIV-positive.
It came as a blow but, as an extrovert, she did not have a problem disclosing her status.
She says her prayer to find the right partner was answered in 2009 when she met Kabo, who was born in Botswana.
He is HIV-negative and the two fell in love.
Starting a sexual relationship with the man who would become her husband wasn’t the easiest thing to do, Dimakatso says.
They have been married for three years and live in Kliptown, Soweto.
Dimakatso says: “I can get stressed and frustrated and immediately it affects the mood in the house.
“It affects our intimacy. Sometimes we stay for a week without sex.”
Dimakatso says sexual intimacy can also cause her stress, because she’s afraid she may infect her husband, although they practise safe sex.
“I worry about waking up one day and hearing my husband is HIV-positive,” she says.
Kabo says they find ways to make their sexual relationship fulfilling.
“We don’t penetrate, but believe me we are very inti- mate and passionate,” the 41year-old chuckles.
“Lovemaking is also about a connection with your partner.”
Dimakatso remains on antiretrovirals (ARVs).
The treatment can bring the viral load down to an undetectable level, meaning the chance of her transmitting the virus is significantly reduced.
The couple often take part in church events, where they talk openly about their relationship to educate people.
“At one church meeting, a lady couldn’t hide her shock after I announced that we are married,” says Dimakatso, 35.
“I asked her to stand up and explain her reaction. Sometimes it is hard to believe there are people who react in this way.”
Kabo says although the couple are aware the stigma persists, in most cases people are welcoming.
“My friends don’t react with shock, they are open to the idea,” he says. “That is why empowering yourself with the right information is vital.”
Dimakatso acknowledges it’s not always a walk in the park. When she is ill periodically, for example, it takes an emotional toll on the couple’s marriage and family life, she says.
An annual cervical test more than two years ago found she had pre-cancerous cells.
Studies have found HIV-positive women are at a higher risk of developing cervical cancer.
Dimakatso was advised to start a family as soon as possible.
After counselling and being given the medical assurance that her viral load was unde- tectable, she fell pregnant.
The couple have a healthy boy of 18 months.
With World Aids Day on Tuesday, the couple hope more people in mixed-status relationships will speak up.
Psychiatrist Sibongile Mashapu has counselled a number of couples in mixed- status relationships who battle depression and anxiety. She says: “There is a fear of contracting or transmitting the virus.
“There are concerns about bearing children, caring for the infected partner or anticipated grief.
“Long-term condom use is sometimes viewed by others as an unrealistic alternative.
“Condoms are considered inconvenient, uncomfortable and inconsistent with the desire to have children.”
Mashapu says the number of mixed-status relationships is likely to increase, thanks to ARVs, so the approach to counselling will need to change.
“HIV- related counselling intervention focuses on the individual at risk. But the sexual transmission of HIV frequently occurs in the primary relationship. My approach is to focus on the couple as a unit.”
The Mookodis hope their story will encourage other couples dealing with HIV. They also hope the stigmatisation of relationships like theirs will end. Equally, they would like to see a change in the way people lead their lives.
“We live in a secretive world, we wear masks, people are dying because of stigma – but God gave us each other,” says Dimakatso.
HAPPY FAMILY: Dimakatso and Kabo Mookodi have an 18-month-old son.