Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Living With Not Dying from HIV

During the past few weeks as I was teaching my English students about HIV/AIDS, I kept thinking about the movie RENT and the message of “living with not dying from HIV.” The Mozambican version of this slogan is “vida positiva” (“positive life”), as in you can be HIV “positive” and still have a “positive” outlook on life. Seeing as over 1 in 4 people in my province is HIV positive, I suspect that nearly all of my students have known someone who has had the disease. It’s possible that one or more of them is HIV positive themselves. Therefore, I was surprised at the level of ignorance and stigma I encountered in the classroom. I heard things like “if you have HIV you are dead,” and there were a few cases of jokers pointing to a classmate and saying “hey teacher, this guy has HIV.” When I told them they were going to have a guest speaker who was HIV positive they were aghast. “Teacher, you mean the visitor… she has HIV?”

There is a hospital down the street from my school where another PCV works and I often stop by to visit. The hospital does great work helping HIV positive people in surrounding communities, even going door-to-door to check up on them (which is hard when they live out in the bush and there is no car to take you there). I had arranged one of the hospital’s trained HIV positive activists to come speak at my school but of course when I came to pick her up she was nowhere to be found. I talked to my friend Dona Olga, a technician at the hospital. She left and came back with two women, one older and one younger with a baby strapped to her back. Apparently they were just patients waiting in line for their anti-retroviral treatments and she had convinced them on the spot to come speak to my classes.

A fellow English teacher, Bernard (remember the lobolo and the killing of the cow?), was kind enough to come in and translate from Changana to English since the women didn’t speak Portuguese. Each woman told her story in turn: how she found out she was HIV positive, how her family reacted, how she began taking the anti-retroviral treatment and is now healthy and strong enough to keep working the fields. The woman with the little girl strapped to her back explained that she found out as a result of mandatory HIV testing for pregnant women. The students were amazed to learn that an HIV positive woman can give birth to an HIV negative baby if a high dose of anti-retrovirals are administered before and after birth.

The women talked about prevention, treatment and about the need to fight discrimination and stigma. They said their families were supportive but they were afraid to tell their neighbors. They reminded the students that you cannot get HIV from sleeping in the same bed as, eating off the same plates as, kissing, hugging, touching… a person with HIV. Lastly, they asked us all to be supportive of our neighbors and friends who are HIV positive.

During the break period we went across the street and I and bought sodas and cookies to share. We chit chatted about our respective lives and Bernard translated. The little girl on the woman’s back grabbed and sipped at a Fanta and the mother said something in Changana. Bernard smiled.
“What is it?” I asked.
“She said that the soda you gave her is blessed.”

The students really seemed to engage with the speakers. Here were two women who look like their aunts and grandmothers, who speak their native tongue, standing in front of them alive and well and unafraid to talk about their HIV status. In each class, a student got up to thank them for their courage in coming to speak with us. Perhaps the most striking moment was when Bernard and I shook hands and kissed the women at the end of the visit. The older woman said, “see? They are not afraid!” and the students clapped.

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