God Loves Me Too

I have travelled a long road from the day I discovered I was HIV positive in 2002. When I found out, I had to be strong for my children – they were what kept me going Every day that I woke up and found myself walking, talking, laughing and carrying on with life was a motivation. I understood that I was the only one responsible for my continued health.

I quickly learnt that being HIV positive is a health condition that can be managed, so I chose to take charge of my own health. I now focus on working hard to ensure that all my children have all their needs and that I am there for them. I am a proud mother, and grandmother. My own mother is 75 and still walking; she has seen me through it all and I am following her lead in ageing gracefully – with HIV – and with the support of all my family members.

Stigma was still rife and when I publicly disclosed that I was HIV positive I came face to face with it. I also experienced my fair share of discrimination and for quite some time my life was never the same. I had to adjust to both living with HIV and to to it being public knowledge that I have the virus. Dating after the diagnosis and my public disclosure was a challenge. Today, with the recognition that treatment is prevention this is becoming less of an issue and we must respect and love HIV positive women.

Disclosing my HIV positive status was a major step that helped me in so many ways. For instance, because I had disclosed I removed the burden of the speculation of others; those who loved to gossip about me the moment I turned my back had nothing more to talk about. I said to myself, ‘I am a career woman and a model and being HIV positive is not a barrier to my success and my future’. I could not change the past; so much had been said and written about me, both negative and positive. Yes there were times when I broke down, but I never cried in public. I always put on a brave face and continued to look the part as a model.

From the day, I was introduced to anteretroviral therapy way back in 2002, I diligently took my treatment and made sure my whole family was aware; they all acted as my treatment buddies and became my major support. As for me, I studiedy everything I could find about HIV and AIDS and what it meant to live with the virus. I came to the point where I realised that ‘Yes I have HIV, but the future still has so much to offer me’. Today, HIV infection is still feminised – the highest number of new infections in Zimbabwe today is in young women – and like many ageing HIV positive women, I was infected when I was still young.I became an expert in counselling others on the disease, especially the newly diagnosed who were struggling to cope with their newly discovered status. This gave me a sense of self worth as I realised that I was a positive influence on many people, especially other women who found themselves in the same dilemma. Even some men were inspired by my example. I continue helping people through public speaking and encouraging HIV counselling and testing, educating communities on awareness, prevention and the dangers of early HIV infection.

I became a popular figure. Many times I would be greeted in the street; some would look at me curiously, while others continued to mock. With time, their mockery no longer affected me; I have watched too many friends and relatives die needlessly for fear of getting tested for HIV as an entry point to treatment.  

Now that there is accelerated advocacy to end AIDS by 2030, there is need to continue encouraging people to get tested for HIV and be treated early, so that we fulfill the new strategy of test and treat.

I have been living with HIV for over 15 years now and despite experiencing some tough moments, I never gave up, for I know that fortunes can change and I am healthy. What more can I ask for?

My viral load has been undetectable for many years. Fears of progressing to full blown AIDS are a thing of the past. This also means I am no longer capable of infecting my sexual partner with HIV, but I still encourage dual protection (use of a condom, as well as another means of contraception) to prevent other sexually tranmsitted infections and unintended pregnancy. I never for one day stopped taking my ARV treatment. I was taught that aniretroviral therapy (ART) is for life and I have always made sure that the treatment is in harmony with my metabolism. No-one could convince me to stop taking my ARVs. I have also been blessed with the spiritual support I need for my well-being. I pay attention to my diet, eating healthy, focusing on fruits and vegetables in season and on wholesome unrefined foods. Fruits have vitamins that are good for my immune system while vegetables provide me with the minerals that my body needs. All in all, I try to eat a balanced diet. I have also studied how my body reacts to certain foods such as too much sugar, oil or starch and I try to eat these foods in moderation. I avoid foods that are difficult to digest. All this keeps me healthy.

I make sure I go for my routine medical check-ups and get my treatment refills. I have learnt to manage my treatment, taking it at the same time every day, with plenty of clean water. While my figure has been affected by treatment side-effects, I have also taught myself to wear clothes that conceal the changes in my body shape and I try to look good all the time. After all, the benefits of treatment far outweigh side effects.

My message to young women, is that they must be aware of HIV and protect themselves from infection by always using condoms; multiple sex partners, early sexual debut and inter-generational relationships with older men all increase their risk of HIV. Comprehensive sexual and reproductive health programmes for adolescents and young women are vital so that they know about HIV and take the necessary steps to protect themselves.

We must advocate for female-controlled HIV prevention strategies and scale up the ‘start free, stay free’ campaign. Communities must address harmful religious and cultural practices that continue to expose women and girls to HIV such as child marriage, widow cleansing, girl pledging and unhealthy polygamous relationships. We must continue to empower the girl child with education to address the poverty that is linked to HIV infection.

I celebrate women’s month with a big smile on my face because women are at the forefront when it comes to health-seeking behaviour, especially around HIV. We want the men to join us to deal with all issues that make us vulnerable to HIV, including violence within families.  

Happy women’s month to all women living with HIV and those who support our cause.

Tendayi Westerhof

Tel. 0774214533