Some of the activists who are part of the campaign
-Photos by Rise Up To HIV
Over a dozen Zambian youths living with HIV and those who are passionate about fighting the spread of the virus have taken to social media to launch a campaign dubbed ‘Team No Shame About HIV+.’
The youths aim to raise awareness about their HIV status and inspire others to come out in the open and live positive lives.
In a country where being HIV positive is sometimes associated with bad behaviour, these activists want to inspire others to defy stigma and walk with their heads high.
The ‘No Shame About Being HIV+’ campaign is using personal stories from HIV activists wearing t-shirts with the message No Shame About HIV+.
The activists occasionally wear the t-shirts without feeling any shame and to them, this is one way of fighting the stigma attached to HIV.
Benjamin: The lead advocate
The activists promote the social media campaign using framed photos created by US-based activist Kevin Maloney.
“Kevin is the one who inspired us to come up with the T-shirt campaign just as they are doing in the USA. The other message we are trying to use as a campaign is the U=U, meaning Undetectable = Untransmittable. This is aimed at encouraging HIV positive people to do their viral load tests and not just thinking about their CD4. We are doing both campaingns using social media in collaboration with Rise Up To HIV,” said Benjamin Sakala, the activist spearheading the campaign.
42 year old Benjamin has been HIV+ since 2007 and he occasionally posts messages of encouragement to people living with HIV on his Facebook page.
“I'm not a hero, I just face reality head-on. The fact is HIV lives with me but no virus is in control of my life. The fight continues, Together We Can! I belong to ‘Team No Shame About Being HIV+,’ One story, One T-shirt at a time,” reads one of Benjamin’s recent status when he launched the campaign on Facebook.
Benjamin has an interesting story.
He started his advocacy a long time ago and on the way, dozens of other people living with HIV have joined him.
“My journey with HIV began in September 2007 to be precise after having unprotected sex with my partner. I later discovered she was living with HIV but deliberately decided to conceal that information. I’m not here to compete with anyone but to just add my voice and also encourage someone out there still failing to cope with the reality of living with HIV,” he says.
He was born on 7th July 1975.
He was married and had two children but he legally divorced in 2015 after being separated from his wife and kids for over 8 years.
After being told of his HIV status in 2007, Benjamin became an advocate on social media.
He embarked on a special crusade using social media to share his story.
“As at today, i don't really know how stigma feels because I have never experienced it. My life with HIV is an open book which I freely share with thousands every year. My encouragement to those still failing to come out in the open due to shame, stigma, fear and denial is please find someone you can confide in. Besides, you are not the first or the last one.”
Precious: The activist who once opted for suicide
Another activist who is part of the ‘Team No Shame About HIV+’ campaign is 24 year old Precious Kaniki, the youngest among the activists.
She is a social worker by profession who spent the years 2013 and 2014 studying at the Evelyn Hone College in Lusaka while in denial of her HIV status.
She currently works for AIDS Healthcare Foundation as an HIV Medic and Youth Coordinator. Precious got aware of the status at a tender age and at some point she was contemplating suicide. She shares her story below.
“Am a young lady living with HIV, I got to know I was positive in my 9th grade. I got sick from that time and I even got used to it but when I came to know my status I wanted to end my life.
I saw no future for my life, my dream of becoming an electro engineering was shattered, I thought living my life was useless.
Life was a toy to me as all my dreams were seen as a total failure. Much worse I was in denial resulting in my personal, spiritual and academic life being impacted negatively,” said Precious.
She says for seven years, she refused to accept her HIV status.
When she passed her Grade eight examinations, she went to Grade ten where she was put in a Pure Sciences class.
She explains that while in that class, she saw no need for her to study hard as she expected herself to die before completing Grade 12.
“With that thinking, I stopped studying. The only time I was studying is when the teachers were teaching. I stopped taking my drugs, I only took them when I started having a cough or getting sick, at one point my CD4 count reached 19. I was the happiest girl because I thought only 18 counts to go and I will be no more.”
A turning point in Precious’ life came in 2014 when she lost too much weight and weighed a meagre 35 kilograms.
She says at that time, she did not pray to die but to recover to make her parents proud by passing her Social Work program she was studying.
On a lighter note, Precious is dating and she adds: "My man is actually HIV negative."
“Am happy to say I fully live my life now without being ashamed of being HIV positive, I know someone would want to know how I became positive. That doesn't matter, what matters is how I live my positive life moreover we won't go back 10 years ago and change the circumstance that led me to became positive. I always keep my promise to adhere to my drugs and put a smile on my face in any situation am in. Know your status, better knowing than not knowing,” said Precious.
Traditional practice gone wrong
One of the youngest members of the ‘Team No Shame About HIV+’ is 26 year old Alintula Nakawala who has been on HIV treatment for the past 14 years.
Alintula was born in a family of three but now she is the only one surviving having lost all her siblings and parents.
Her father past away in 1993 and her mother followed in 2006.
“I have lived a life of rejection, discrimination and stigma but I still manage to walk with my head high because am not ashamed of who I am. Living with HIV has been a challenge I have accepted because I can't change it but I can fight it,” said Alintula.
She says she got the HIV virus through a tradition practice performed by her aunt.
“I got infected by my aunt through tattooing. She was told to put her menstrual blood which she did on me without knowing that she was HIV positive. I was just a young girl by then, some where around the age of eight or nine.”
Reverend Stuart Bweupe
Reverend Bweupe: A clergyman with a mission of saving others from HIV
Another activist in the campaign is Staurt Bweupe, a 49 year old Reverend in the Anglican Church. Reverend Bweupe has a sad story which i broke on this blog two years ago.
His aim in coming out open about his status is to inspire other clergymen who are living with HIV to live positively.
"Am not happy to be HIV+, I have suffered but am alive by the Grace of God," reads a recent status on Reverend Bweupe's Facebook page.
His coming out open was not easy as he suffered stigma from his close friends, relatives and fellow church leaders.
At one point, he was blocked from conducting Sunday services in church as the church leadership debated what to do with him following his public disclosure.
But over the years, he has risen above negativity and now presides over his congregation in Kabwe without opposition.
Brenda: My husband hid his HIV status from me
Another activist with an unfortunate story is 43 year old Brenda Musenga.
She has been living with HIV for over nine years now but she fully accepts her status and uses it to fight stigma.
“I’m stigma proof. I was a virgin the time i got married and we used to go for Voluntary Counselling and Testing with my husband every after three months and always the results were negative. But the time my hubby found out he was HIV positive, he stopped me from testing. Without me knowing, he was put on medication and when I came across the medicine one day, he told me it was for energy,” said Brenda in an interview.
Brenda says in June 2007, a few months after she saw her husband’s medication, she secretly went for VCT and her results came out positive.
She says life was not easy for her.
“In the first few months, it was not easy for me to disclose even to my family. I went through shame and today am a living testimony. I go out in the community and help children, women and youths living with the virus. I also started a support group and we basically focus on HIV issues.”
Brenda says her husband was living in denial and he stopped taking anti-retro viral drugs leading to complications.
Unfortunately, he died in March 2008, leaving her with her own three children and a fourth one he fathered outside of wedlock.
“I have passed through rejection which is still happening up to now. This has really made me strong and I continue to stand up and fight HIV,” said Brenda.
Through these touching stories on social media, these HIV activists hope to fight stigma and 'free' more people living with HIV from living in denial.
The 'Team No Shame About HIV+' campaign is also beefed up by other youths who do not live with the HIV virus.
These are Zambian youths who have a heart for an AIDS free society and go as far as they can to spread the news for positive living among those who deny their HIV status.
This article by Paul Shalala previously appeared at The Zambian Analyst, here.