An ac­tivist’s look back at his jour­ney liv­ing with HIV

Observer on Saturday - - News - Vusi Mat­se­bula’s story

“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.

Painful

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.

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