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.
Let’s Fight GBV
On a cool Sunday in March some years ago, I decided to take a walk and I found myself at one very popular place in town.
As the place was known for delicious braai and I was feeling a bit hungry, I decided to order a plate. Seated at a table in the back, I noticed a couple enter. I knew them very well. They chose a table, ordered food, and began drinking beer. It was one beer after the other for both of them. They did not notice me. So I pretended not see them and just sat at my table, slowly sipping my juice. It began to get dark and several things started happening. When I noticed almost everyone was getting very drunk and dancing. I wanted to get out of the place as fast as I could.
As I walked outside to the parking lot, I spotted a cab. As I headed for the cab, I noticed some people in the car next to it. The lady I had seen in the restaurant with her partner earlier was inside the car, but she was kissing a different man. The man who was with the lady earlier arrived and a big fight started. The cab driver refused to go because he wanted to see what was happening. We both were able to hear their loud exchange of words. According to the man, the lady was HIV positive and on treatment. He said he was doing her a favour by dating her while he was HIV negative.
He said he was only in the relationship because he thought he had nowhere to run, because he could be infected and still in the window period. The woman also started shouting out and saying how the man was abusing her because of her condition and that she was fed up. I knew there was no place for me to intervene in this matter, more so that I was sober and they were drunk.
I left the place when the situation was a bit calm, but deep down I wished I could have done something. I told myself I would go see the woman and talk to her on an agreed date, but because of my busy schedule I did not manage to meet with her. Later I heard that the guy had killed her and committed suicide. No one knew the reason for this tragic outcome. I could not help but wonder if the fight that I had witnessed had been the tipping point or if I could have said something to her that would have made a difference.
I share this sad story to illustrate how HIV continues to influence our relationships and contributes to sexual abuse and violence, particularly against women. No one deserves to be mistreated by a partner because of his or her HIV status. We can learn to recognize the signs of abuse, report abuse to the police, and be aware of where to get help if you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship. For help, you can contact the following organizations:
Botswana Gender Based Violence Prevention and Support Center (formerly Kagisano Society Women’s Shelter) at 390-7659, after hours: 74265081, or SMS “HELP” to 16510, or send private message to Facebook: @botswanagbvpreventionandsupportcenter
WoMen Against Rape (WAR) Tel: 686-0865/71311244, Plot 517 Moeti Road, Maun. Facebook: @WoMen Against Rape Email: email@example.com
Stepping Stones International (contact in cases involving children 18 and younger); Tel: 573-9858, Facebook: @SteppingStonesInternational
“Let’s Break Stigma and Face the World”
Iam convinced that the change we need to end the HIV epidemic can only occur if more people living with HIV begin to participate in the response.
I want to appeal to those who have gone into hiding to come out and face the world. We are not part of the problem, rather we are part of the solution. We need to stand up and show people out there HIV is real, but it can be managed if you live positively by starting treatment early and taking care of yourself.
Recently, I met a group of students from a junior secondary school who surprised me with how much they knew about HIV. I realised how important it is to not wait until it’s too late to talk about HIV issues with our young people.
While we are busy trying to hide things from them, thinking that they are too young to understand, they are actually ahead of us. For instance, they asked me why adolescents (under 16) need consent from parents to test for HIV. They explained that this policy presents a barrier to youth knowing their HIV status. Sometimes youth encounter situations that put them at risk and need to test for HIV, but much of the time they cannot easily discuss this with their parents in order to get their consent for testing.
We still have some forms of stigma that are holding us back as a society from ending this epidemic. I have observed on many occasions the look on people’s faces when I talk openly about my status. This is usually followed by silence or unresponsiveness to what I say.
It is my wish to hear an influential person in my country, whether a pastor or any type of leader, talk openly about their HIV-positive status. It would make a big difference and change the public perception about HIV. Of course, going public with your HIV positive status takes not only bravery, but also commitment to a lifelong journey of living not only for yourself but for the community as well. All eyes begin to watch your every move.
For some of us, facing this challenge moulds us into stronger people, while for others, the challenges of going public become too difficult to overcome. That is why it is very important to find a support system before going public, so that one can be prepared ahead of time to respond to these challenges through proper counselling and support. Botswana Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (BONEPWA+) provides this counselling and support free of charge through a large number of support groups that are based throughout Botswana.
Many people are not aware there is this kind of support near their homes, so when they are faced with challenges they break down or go into hiding. I have seen recent success in adopting what is called the greater involvement of people living with HIV. For example, this year the Treat All Champions project, which was supported by PEPFAR, provided a group of 30 of us with a platform to spearhead new activities addressing stigma, disclosure, ARV adherence, and other issues pertaining to people living with HIV. I am thankful to have served as one of the Treat All champions and I am continuing to encourage people to test and know their status all over the country.