An activist’s look back at his journey living with HIV
“Party hard, make mistakes and laugh endlessly.
Do things you’re afraid to do. After all, you are young once”.
This and many more other quotes were popular during my youth - and remain in the lips of young people to this day. The street lingo for young people today is YOLO, you only live once. This carefree attitude, when adhered to, unfortunately leads to dire consequences in some instances. Here is my story.
I had just completed high school and the world was just a playground for my friends and I. We had our whole lives ahead, so we set out to enjoy every bit of our youth – consume our youth as it were.
These were the days when the economy was evidently strong, and people knew how to throw a party. Weekends were something to look forward to and you could hop from one party spot to the next, without an invitation.
The best party was defined by the amount of alcohol flow – and the women, though this was not top of the agenda for my friends and I. We lived for such parties.
Even in my wildest dream, at the tender age of 22, I could not have fathomed how a Saturday that I believed was like any other could be so life changing. It was July 1992, we were at a party with my friends. On this day, I met a woman that caught my attention.
We kind of clicked and enjoyed each other’s company. One thing led to another and we found a way into each other’s arms, to my bed and consummated. Not much was said the Sunday morning, as we silently swore to a one-night stand, and she left for her place.
The week went by without as much as a thought on the weekend’s indiscretion.
Then on Friday morning, boom. A bombshell was dropped on me. I received a call from the woman I had frolicked with the previous Saturday. She coldly informed me to prepare for my death. In my attempt to make sense of what she had said, I questioned how she could know that and her cruel answer that drove a nail into my heart was, “Because you have AIDS and I gave it to you!” As the words pierced my heart, her friend’s laughter filled my ears.
My world came crashing down. I realised that this was a group of vindictive friends that were angry at the world and went around purposely infecting those vulnerable enough to fall for them. I was devastated.
In the absence of reliable information on the disease, it hit me hard and dawned on me that I would be gone soon. Many a times, I wished myself to die.
In March 1993, I talked to a priest about my situation and after offering counselling, he recommended that I take an HIV test. I mastered enough courage and went to the Salvation Army Clinic (purely because it was the nearest as I lived at the Kuyehlela Flats in Msunduza) for the test that would set me free (though I did not recognise this initially). I was offered counselling – which was quite eye-opening and provided hope.
Blood was drawn, and I was told to return in three weeks, for the results. It was a long painful 21 days, as I battled with the weight of the possibility of a positive HIV diagnosis. I prayed and hoped that the woman had played a bad joke on me. But alas, the time to collect the results finally arrived and my worst fear was confirmed. Indeed, I had been infected with HIV. I am grateful for the support given to me by other people living with HIV, it is what kept me going. In 1995, I was lucky to attend a conference in Cape Town, South Africa, where I mixed with many people from across the globe, from all walks of life, that were living positively with HIV as well as supporting others through their journey living with the virus. At the time, some had already lived with HIV for 15 years.
I learnt that acceptance of one’s positive HIV status was key but eating positively was next. A seed to influence and help others with a positive HIV diagnosis was planted in me then. In 1996, having decided to live openly with my HIV status, I publicly declared my HIV status – and in the process became the second person to do so in the Kingdom of Eswatini. Today, I have a family.
A dotting wife and a beautiful baby girl – born free of HIV, thanks to the country’s flagship programme, PMTCT. My journey has not been without challenges but being always true to myself about my HIV status, has helped me focus on the things that matter.
I am in awe of the leadership of His Majesty King Mswati III for his efforts in ensuring that his people received better health care, he declared HIV and AIDS as all our concern and business (i-HIV yindzaba yetfu sonkhe) in 1999 and followed up in 2001 by motivating the United Nations General Assembly to support the introduction of antiretroviral therapy in Eswatini. He has demonstrated leadership in many aspects. Presently, the country’s HIV and AIDS response has unapologetically set an ambition to super-fast track the response to reduce new infections by 85 per cent; avert 50 per cent of AIDS related deaths amongst people living with HIV (PLHIV); and eliminate all forms of HIV stigma and discrimination.
This will all become a reality if each one of us plays his/her part and this begins with taking an HIV test. I know my HIV status. Why wait? Know yours. In ending, may I urge all young people out there to be cognisant that that the choices you make today, you may have to live with, the rest of your lives. Try as much as you can to reduce your risks of HIV infection. If you are sexually active, use condoms correctly all the time and make HIV testing a lifestyle.