Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health

ZIMBABWE-HEALTH: People Living Positively With AIDS

Isabella Matambanadzo

GWERU, Aug 29 1996 (IPS) - The rattle of shakers accompanied songs as more than 250 people moved through the city centre to increase awareness about people living with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

Auxilia Chimusoro chair of the Zimbabwe National Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (ZNNP+), was excited by the turnout.

“This is a very important day because when we started in 1992, we were about 12 and seven of us have since passed away,” Chimusoro said.

“I never knew when we came out that one day we would be so many,” she told IPS.

Chimusoro was among 12 people who in 1992 started an organisation called AIDS Affected Resource Persons and who openly admitted that they were HIV positive.

She has been infected with HIV for the past nine years and since going public, has poured all her energies into advocating for the rights and well-being of Zimbabweans who have the virus.

Her enthusiasm was evident throughout Zimbabwe’s fourth national conference of people living with HIV/AIDS.

“Breaking the Barriers, Healing The Wounds” was the theme of the five-day meeting which ended in this town, some 270 kilometres south west of the capital Harare, Friday (Aug.30).

The meeting provided a forum for people living with HIV/AIDS to meet and share their experiences, and it provided information and skills leading to self empowerment.

Special sessions at the meeting focused on health and socio- cultural issues affecting women who live with HIV/AIDS and how they are doubly disadvantaged by the disease.

Young and middle-aged HIV positive women formed the majority of the conference participants.

“I tested positive in June 1992 after I gave birth to my youngest child,” said thirty-five-year-old Sillingani Bhonyni. She told IPS that she had come to the meeting to learn from others how to look after herself “as a woman and a mother”.

Women who attended the meeting were either widowed or had been abandoned by their husbands.

“My husband left me in 1992 when he thought I was dying. He went to live with another woman. I just want to know how I can take care of myself and provide for my children,” Bhonyni said.

At least 52 HIV/AIDS support groups from around the country attended the meeting, along with non-governmental organisations, working in HIV/AIDS.

“Living and working with HIV deaths is a constant companion,” said Lynde Francis, ZNNP+ organising secretary.

“When people living with AIDS meet, the first thing they do is not go shopping or touring. They look around them fearing the empty spaces that might have appeared,” she added.

According to Francis, “people with HIV/AIDS are isolated, and have a loss of dignity and self-esteem. It is only in the arms of our special community of people with AIDS that we recover our dignity.”

National statistics estimate that about 10 percent of Zimbabwe’s 11,5 million people are infected with HIV. But those involved in AIDS work believe this is a cautious estimate and push the figure to about 20 percent.

“It is very important to accept that you are HIV positive and then to live positively,” Norman Chaka (not his real name) told IPS.

When Chaka’s test results came back from the land with a positive sign in 1991, his parents chased him away from home.

“There is a lot of stigma about AIDS, even from your family,” he said. “That is what this meeting is about, promoting the right and dignity of people with HIV/AIDS.”

But as 16-year-old Farai Mahaso noted at the conference, accepting that someone you love has HIV or AIDS is not always easy.

“I was very angry with my mother,” said Mahaso, the son of Chimusoro. ” I asked myself what we had done to deserve this. I also thought why shouldn’t she say it is a traditional illness like what other people do,” he told IPS.

“Some local people were spreading the rumour that my mother went to England and brought AIDS in Zimbabwe,” he recalled.

Chimusoro was the first woman here to step forward and publicly announce that she had the virus which causes AIDS.

But her son only learned that his mother had the AIDS virus when he saw her face among others on the cover of a video cassette about people with HIV/AIDS.

Over time, Mahaso has come to accept his mother’s HIV positive status and her choice to be a public activist. His support has grown to such an extent that he now “educates other people about AIDS.”

The young man’s advice to parents is to be honest with their children. “Parents should tell their children before they come out(go public),” he said. I think that is best.”

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