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Looking Beyond HIV

Onalethata Mpebe

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A lot changed since I decided to tell everyone on Facebook about my status; my habits, my outlook on life. I value my relationships and myself. But I still make myself find the positive in difficult situations. I still make jokes, mainly about my own circumstances and experiences.

I never thought my life would turn out like this, especially after my dearest friend died due to an AIDS-related illness. I told myself that I would stay negative no matter what. But life had other plans for me, at first someone I thought that being positive was a curse but I decided to take it as a blessing. I knew that God cannot put me in a situation without any kind of elevation.

I have learned from life that sometimes the darkest times can bring us to the brightest places. Our most painful struggles can grant us the most necessary growth and that the most heartbreaking losses of friendship and love can make room for the most wonderful people. What seems like a curse at the moment can actually be a blessing, and that what seems like the end of the road is actually just the discovery that we are meant to travel down a different path.

No matter how difficult things seem, there is always hope and no matter how powerless we feel or how horrible things seem, we can’t give up, we have to keep going even when it’s scary, even when all of our strength seems gone, we have to keep picking ourselves back up and moving forward, because whatever we’re battling in the moment, it will pass, and we will make it through.

I am happy that I know my status and It is very empowering to come forward and say, I am not ashamed or embarrassed. This is who I am, no excuses or apologies. It’s still quite a challenge because most people find it hard to test, accept their status, disclose, start and adhere to medication. Being diagnosed with HIV has not hindered me in any way. It has made me set higher goals, and push harder to achieve them. Living with HIV is no longer about dealing with your condition but normalizing HIV in your life.

It is about the quality of my life and planning for the future and making informed choices. It is about me taking every day as it comes and enjoying my life to the fullest. I cannot change the past, but I can determine that my past will not define my present, or dictate my future.

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Positive Living

Have Faith in Your Treatment

Onalethata Mpebe

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Faith and health are both very important to me. Following my HIV diagnosis in 2014, I had to change the way I thought about my faith and my health. Even after I learned to accept my HIV status, I found myself wishing that God would cure me of HIV.

While I view my free antiretroviral treatment as a gift from God, I also have faith and hope that medical research will one day find the cure for HIV. It may be that God will bring us a cure through the work of researchers, but in the meantime I will be faithful to my ARVs, till death do us apart.

Many people have invited me to their churches claiming that their prophets will heal me. I refuse all these invites because I have seen the worst and I don’t want to be amongst those who die because they stopped taking their ARVs.

We must do more to open people’s eyes to the consequences of these beliefs. The reality is that many lives continue to be lost because some churches do not encourage and support their HIV+ members to adhere to their ARV treatment. A few weeks back, I saw an advert from a church inviting people to come to their crusade for healing.

The advert stated that “people with HIV, diabetes, and cancer will be healed.” I have met people who claim they were healed and stopped their ARVs after attending these kinds of events.
In some instances, these prophets will encourage people who they claim to have healed to do a rapid HIV test.

In a few cases, some of these people have tested HIV-negative, so it seems like scientific proof that indeed they are cured of HIV. What is critical for everyone to understand is that these rapid tests measure the presence of HIV-specific antibodies, they do not detect the virus itself.

Beginning treatment early and sustaining viral suppression will reduce the amount of HIV-specific antibodies such that the rapid test will produce a negative result, yet the person still is infected with HIV.

Moreover, those of us who have adhered to our treatment will have what is termed “undetectable viral load,” which simply means that the viral load test is not sensitive enough to detect the very small amount of HIV in our blood.

I have lost dear friends because of these prophets, and not only those who had HIV. One woman close to me who had breast cancer passed on because she refused to undergo any medical procedure. She went from one prophet to another in search of a miracle, even as she became worse by the day.

She kept on hoping the prophets would be able to heal her until her last breath. Apart from what the government is doing to set the record straight, each one of us can play an important role in educating ourselves about HIV and how it is treated.

Religion can give people hope and offer a strong support network, but it should not be used to deter people from accessing proven life-saving health services like HIV treatment. We will not be able to put an end to AIDS in Botswana if we do not work with all faith leaders and congregations to address this issue.

People of all faiths and religions, or no religion, should encourage and support HIV testing and treatment.

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Positive Living

Let’s Rise Above Batho Ba Tla Reng Syndrome

Onalethata Mpebe

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In your life, you will constantly be surrounded by people who will judge you day in and day out. They will gossip about you when you succeed, and they will criticize and mock you when you fail. It is an absolute certainty that batho ba tla reng (people will talk).

How you respond to this certainty makes a world of difference for your life. Unfortunately, many people respond by shaping their lives around the approval of other people. Today, I want to encourage you to avoid living this way, which is what I call the the batho ba tla reng syndrome. We must learn how to respond when confronted by family or friends who challenge our decisions with the phrase “but what will people say?”

For me, the key to positive living is focusing on what pleases God, not people. People can never be pleased, unless humbled and influenced by the grace of God. The day I decided to go public about my HIV+ status, I didn’t consult anyone or ask anyone if I should. On that day, I found myself alone in my room, struggling with many suicidal thoughts. I remember that while I was fighting these thoughts, something inside of me urged me to share my HIV status with the public.

I made the decision on my own, even though I knew that my family would object. I told my cousin, who was fine with it. I also told my sister, who was against it. I told her that I am doing this for myself, to be free. She said that she didn’t understand what I was going through, but was worried about how I will handle negativity. I told her, “I don’t know how I will handle it, but I will see as time goes on.”

My mother was furious to find out I had gone public after I did it. She said: “ke eng o tsamaya o ikgasakgasa, ntha batho mo ba re ba itseng ga ba itatsetatse mo” (why did you go public, most people we know [who are HIV positive] never did that.) Many other family members began criticizing me for going public, but I chose not pay attention to negative things people were saying about me. I found amazing power within me which allowed me to rise above all of the judgment and negativity. I started paying more attention on building myself up as an HIV activist and motivational speaker. As a result, I began living my life the way I wanted.

Living this way is not without sacrifice, but for me, it is the only way to achieve my destiny. I found out that some people who I loved were trying to distract me from my life’s purpose. I just had to sever ties with the naysayers in order to pave the way to a much better and healthier life. The more I ignored the negativity, the more I found positivity within me, and from people who supported me.

My readers, please do not fall victim to the batho ba tla reng syndrome. Stop worrying what others think or say about you. When you care about what others think of you, you give your power away. You effectively disempower yourself. Worrying about what others think of you is the number one reason why people experience stress, anxiety, and fear. This is why we see many people today failing to accept their HIV status, to disclose to their partner and family, to adhere to medication and live a healthy lifestyle. Some people still fail to get tested for HIV or to enroll on ARV treatment because they are trapped in the batho ba tla reng syndrome. We must continue to rise above it!

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