I’m not sure how to start this off so I’ll just go with the images and feelings I’ve got right now. A little girl dressed up in the family’s only children’s dress, laying in bed, outside her family’s home. Eyes closed, the sun shining across her innocent black skin. A strong man, thin but tough, all sinew and muscle. Raw strength, humility, a quiet demeanor and gentle nature. A man who knows hard work. A face worn by the sun and worries, standing beside me, working together to make the lives of our people better. Anger…frustration, pain… Respect.
Two pictures, sharing one thing in common, an innocent six year old girl, who lost her unfair fight against HIV. A strong man, battling on after five long years of stigma, pain, highs and lows, and an inexpressable strength. Two images I’ve seen first hand in the last months, only the beginning. Can you imagine the strength of character it takes to accept your status, to face stigma and ridicule, to be belittled, laughed at, shunned because of other’s fear and ignorance? To stand strong as an example to your fellow men and women as someone who is living positive? To face someone you barely know, admit your status to them, not knowing if they share in the fear of the uneducated and to ask for help, informing official channels to support others in the community and help stem the tide of ignorance and fear of HIV/AIDS? I couldn’t…
I knew the information, I’d studied the texts on culture and stigma, and on how to encourage positive behavior and positive living as a whole. But information is just that, an abstract, a theory on paper, until you see an innocent laid out at wake; or until today, When I met a simple man, a friend I’d made, who showed me what courage and leadership are. Who showed of strength, and who asked me, some white guy from another world, to help him help his people, to be an inspiration, to rise above fear and stigma and show real courage and character.
The look in his eyes, and the power of the moment kept me in silence for a moment as he searched for my reaction. I answered with a smile and a hand on his shoulder, thanked him for his strength, for telling me, for asking for help, and told him that together we would work to help those affected, to prevent the disease, to help those infected live happy, healthy lives, and to get official organization and recognition together to receive support… And to give it.
I reminded him that I was always available to anyone, that confidentiality would be maintained, and that I’d be happy to go with anyone and be tested and go through VCT – voluntary testing and counseling with anyone if they were afraid to go alone. To serve as an example about how important it is to know your status, that HIV/AIDS is not a death sentence, and that with treatment and positive living a happy normalized life can be had. That together we could serve as role models and affect a change.