I wrote this article because in Zimbabwe, 1 in 4 people are living with HIV/AIDS according to official statistics. This means that unofficially, there are probably more people living with this disease. This is a very huge number. I have also seen people who are close to me get infected by the infection and I’ve seen the stigma that comes with it. I was a student at Midland State University, Zimbabwe and I saw a lot of young people ostracized. There's a certain stigma attached to being a young female student at MSU, you'd hear people saying “these students are promiscuous”, “they're taking our husbands”. Being one of those students affected me because as soon as I told someone that I was from MSU people would attach all sorts of narratives to it. It's like Africans are willing to give African women education but are not willing to give the other freedoms that come with that education. Like every young woman, I'm tired of being stigmatized, of people thinking I'm at a higher risk of getting HIV because I'm educated, because I'm open-minded, because I know more than they think I should. In the patriarchal society I live in, if you're not going to sit at home and be a housewife, then you're considered at a high risk of getting HIV.
It is not my problem until it becomes my problem. It is not your problem until it becomes your problem.
In Zimbabwe, we all know someone who has died of AIDS. We have all been to a funeral where the deceased mysteriously died. Short illness. Sudden headache. Or the gloomy euphemisms. Pneumonia. TB. I knew a woman who claimed she had diabetes when it was clear it was nothing of the sort. She died a painful death on her way to get treatment in Harare. If only it had been a little earlier. Who can blame her though. Admitting one has AIDS is hardly going to earn sympathy or even empathy.
To have HIV in Zimbabwe is still shrouded in stigma. The unglamorous shadow of loose morals and jaded eyes. This disease is anywhere and everywhere. Statistics abound and one is never truly sure which figure is which. Is half the population HIV positive? Is it 1 in 4? How can we truly ascertain the figures when there is a dark world of untested figures?
Sentiments are changing gradually as I have heard some say, better to have HIV than diabetes or cancer. They say it is chronic but manageable. They say it is not as expensive. No draining sessions of costly chemotherapy and painful medications. They say it is better now that there is only 1 pill to be taken daily, rather than the previous cocktails which sometimes disfigured the body. Leaving the tell tale signs of ARV ravaged bodies. One can live with it now, they say. It is not the end of the world as it used to be.
Despite this, no one is lining up to announce when they do test HIV positive though. They still whisper at funerals about the actual cause of death. Despite HIV being 'better', they would rather announce their cancers brashly on social media. For they know it will elicit a lot more empathy and sympathy. People will even crowdfund to send them to India for treatment.
HIV/AIDS is not a disease. It's a syndrome of stigma and opportunistic infections. The former being worse than the latter. Nowadays, one can live to old age with an undetectable viral load and a healthy body. The images of sunken cheeks and gaunt bodies seeking the sun even in sweltering temperatures swaddled in a blanket is so last decade. Now the face of HIV is you and me. It's your chipmunk cheeked neighbour with the glowing skin. It's your boisterous colleague at work who has never even had a headache. It's the girl you meet at the club who looks like she has stepped from a magazine cover. It's the big man who is full of life.
Coming together and talking about HIV/AIDS forces this to be part of our national discourse. Not merely a preserve of civic society organisations and government run AIDS Awareness councils such as National Aids Council. This is not a disease that belongs to certain people. It belongs to all of us. And until we recognise that, the number of infections will keep rising. Homes will be broken, young lives destroyed. NO. In this age, no life needs to be destroyed by a positive sign on an HIV test kit. If we all get tested, those who are HIV positive can get immediate treatment henceforth and take necessary precautions to avoid spreading it to others. If we stop creating a monster out of HIV/AIDS, we can finally fight this disease.
Ilet Chirimangombe is a young Zimbabwean woman who is passionate social advocacy. She has a Bachelors of Social Sciences in Politics and Public Management.
“I believe in Africa... I want to see Africa win, and I think how we treat our most vulnerable shows where we are headed as a continent. I stand for equality between genders, true recognition of women's rights and not just on paper. I want women to help themselves, to become a sisterhood instead of fighting over petty issues which revolve around men. I want more women like Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka, Folorunsho Alakija, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Danai Gurira. I want women to read my writing and come out of it inspired. I want to leave them reflective. That's all one can really hope for when you write.”