By: Robert Bartram
Softly-spoken Nyasha lives in Zimbabwe. Just a moment's acquaintance with her will tell you that she is kind, generous and thoughtful. She discovered that she was HIV positive in 2000, and initially her diagnosis sent her into a tailspin. She went into her shell, didn't speak to anyone and lost a dangerous amount of weight - all things that would worsen her condition, not improve it. Even at her workplace, she would simply collect her cup of tea during work breaks instead of socialising with her colleagues as she had always done before. Her condition made her paranoid, convinced that everyone was talking and laughing about her behind her back. But it was not the disease itself that caused her to be like this, but the sense of social stigma that came with it.
This is often the all-too tragic response of people living with HIV. Believing they will become social outcasts, they force this punishment on themselves. But Nyasha has broken out of this dangerous cycle. With the help of the work of Byron Katieu; she has not only come to accept her condition, but counsels others in their response to it.
"Basically I was seeing myself as no longer fit, no longer part of them." Eventually, after much prompting by her doctor, she summoned up the courage to attend a support group. And then she suddenly realised that she was not alone. She opened up bit-by-bit, telling first her sister, then her sister-in-law. They were supportive, but she implored them not to tell anyone. But realising that if she ever fell ill, she had a duty to inform other people around her - such as her manager - not least so that they could advise any medical staff of her condition. The final hurdle was to inform her mother, and once she had done this, she knew the stigma would disappear.
"My main problem," she says, "was that I couldn't accept it. I wanted to hide it, yet it was showing." That's why her advice for people living with HIV is so straightforward: to accept it. To accept HIV is to "liberate yourself psychologically." Many run away from the truth of the condition, even refusing to get tested in the first place. The only way to live life is to live positively, she asserts. Quite simply, "if you live positively, you can live to [the age] where you were supposed to get to."
She implores others to be open with loved ones, especially children. She presumed that her children would never understand "because they are children" but soon came to understand that "they have to know what is going on...because they are your support system." In the early days, after initial diagnosis, she even suggests that they can be a practical help in reminding someone living with HIV to take their medication.
But sharing with non-family members is also vital, says Nyasha. She is now so open about her condition that she is a volunteer helper for many others with HIV and loves the fulfillment of helping others. She is so positive about her new life, she says, that often other people with HIV refuse to believe that she has the condition too!
Finally, she wants the world to know that HIV does not discriminate: it can kill the most significant or the lowliest people in society. But by the same token, anyone can live with it too, they just have to generate a positive outlook and believe they can defeat it.