“How I turned stigma into an opportunity to educate my neighbours”

When Joy offered her neighbour’s children a mug of hot chocolate, little did she think she would be accused of infecting them with HIV.

When Joy offered her neighbour’s children a mug of hot chocolate, little did she think she would be accused of infecting them with HIV. But instead of taking offense, Joy explains how she used the situation to raise awareness about how HIV is transmitted and how it can be prevented and treated.

I woke up with a start! Someone was banging on my door. Who could it be this early? I jumped out of the bed to be met by the most devastating experience.

The previous day it had rained heavily. When my neighbour’s children came home from school, they were drenched. Their mother, Marie, was not at home and, playing the good neighbor, I welcomed the children into my house. I lit the heater before serving the two boys with a mugful of hot chocolate and ginger biscuits. When their father came to pick them later, explaining that their mother would be late, the children were warm and were watching their favorite cartoon on my TV.

So when I opened the door to a raging Marie early the following morning, I was mystified about what the problem was. My main concern was whether her children had fallen sick from getting so wet.

Open about HIV status

I had tested positive for HIV almost five years earlier. My philosophy has always been that there is nothing humiliating or embarrassing about living with HIV, so I was open about my status with my neighbours and spoke about it without the slightest sign of embarrassment. Little did I realise that not everyone had as much knowledge about HIV as I had expected – including Marie.

“Eeh! Eeh! You want to kill my children!” she wagged an accusing finger at me. “Because you have AIDS, you think you will infect even our children. Why did you invite my children into your house and have the audacity to serve them with the same cups you use?” she charged.

I was dumbfounded when I realised where she was heading. I let her talk for a while, as my other neighbours watched approvingly. From the looks on their faces, I could tell they believed her. But rather than taking offence, I thought it was a very good opportunity for me to educate my neighbours about how HIV is transmitted, as well as prevention, treatment and the importance of being open about one’s status.

Speaking out

Though everyone seemed to believe Marie’s part of the story I gathered my wits and lifted my hand to call for silence. “Good neighbors, please let me explain something and then you can decide for yourselves,” I pleaded amidst jeers and scorn.

When they finally let me speak and I told about the different ways the virus can be transmitted. “So does anyone now think I infected Marie’s children with AIDS?” I asked when I had finished. They all shouted “NO!” giving me more courage to go on.

By the time I finished, most of the neighbours, including Marie, were saying they were ready to be tested for HIV. I introduced them to health facilities where they could get counselling and testing. But I also realised Marie may have said something negative about me to her children and I had to deal with that as well. So I went to their school and introduced myself as an HIV activist, saying I would like to speak to the children about HIV transmission.

I was given 30 minutes. When I finished, the children had so many questions it took me another 30 minutes to answer all of them. Today, Marie and her family are my best friends and, although she tested negative for HIV, she goes out with me to schools, churches and social gatherings whenever I am invited to educate people on HIV. Recently she told me that her best topicis on disclosing one’s status: “No one with a bad intention would disclose their positive HIV status to other people,” she says.

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