HIV/AIDS, How the Elephant in the room disappeared

Society & Culture | By Joana Ruth Chinyoka, Social Resercher | 08 May 2015

One seminar on contemporary health studies will always stand out during my university course, the day we discussed about HIV/AIDS, the elephant in the room. That cold October afternoon we did not just talk about the elephant we dissected it into statistics. To most of the young British students that were in that seminar the elephant was just another sexually transmitted disease that affected mainly Afrikans and gay men communities. This they knew from the statistics spread in their glossy textbooks by world renowned authors. However, this was different for me as it was a topic which brought out profound feelings of sadness. For me it was more than about the statistics of Zimbabwe or Southern Afrika. Those statistics were my friends, my relatives, my loved ones and that day I walked out of the seminar because it was simply hard to imagine my loved ones as statistics.

I first began to understand about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 90’s when I was just a child. Loved ones that I knew were often left to die alone because of the myths, stigma and shame associated with the disease. No one talked about the flesh eating disease and for almost a decade it became the elephant in the room, everyone saw it but nobody talked about it. Being a curious child I often snuck to the adult section of the community library to read a big blue glossy book with the words written HIV/AIDS epidemic of Southern Afrika. I quickly learnt the meaning of the words abstinence, protection, faithfulness and sexual intercourse. I learnt that the flesh eating disease had no cure and the result was death. Being a sexually transmitted disease meant it carried shame, myths and stigma.
The seminar reminded me that it did not matter whether I was in England or any other place I still had the same mind set. I began attending charity events and conferences aimed towards ethnic minorities. I did this because I wanted to know if the elephant in the room still existed. It was at one of these conferences that I met Thando - a curvy bubbly woman with a smile that could melt butter. She would tell her story to anyone willing to listen and as I got engrossed in conversation with her I realised that the elephant in the room had disappeared a long time ago as there was more to HIV/AIDS such as life, happiness, love and family.
Thando rolled back tears as she narrated how she had lost three young children in a space of five years in the early 90’s, there was no  encouragement to get tested back then because no one wanted to offend anyone. Thando had been loyal and had no reason to suspect her husband of being unfaithful. Her family had blamed her mother in law for the deaths of the toddlers as prophesied by the local witch doctor. Thando’s mother in law’s crime was that she had a volatile womb only managing to conceive one child. She often had explosive temperamental episodes taking out her frustrations on Thando accusing her of being an uneducated goldigger. Unfortunately her son too succumbed to the flesh eating disease without leaving any provisions for Thando so she moved back in with her parents.
Thando was however determined to change her life so she began attending night classes to attain GCSE’s. She  also joined a cross border  women’s group selling artistic wares  in neighbouring countries. It was during one of these trips in South Afrika that she collapsed after developing a cough that she could not shake off. When she woke up she was addressed by a doctor who lacked empathy and just asked her how long she had been positive. Thando’s world came tumbling down, it became bleak and dark. It was easy to live in denial until one day a local women’s group of people living with HIV/AIDS came to visit her. They all gave their accounts on how they had found out their statuses and how acceptance of the positive word had saved them. It was hard for Thando to accept she could live positively but if she did not then her whole family would have died in vain and the day she accepted her status is the day she got saved.

Thando learnt a lot about women development and empowerment through the local women’s groups that often encouraged people to get tested. She learnt about the new anti-retroviral programmes that had become popular in the millennium and that infected people could live full life expectancies. She passed her studies and went on to do a degree in social work. Thando admitted that in the past it had been difficult because there was no medication and a lot of stigma but nowadays things had changed. It was all in the mind and having a positive attitude, the minute she willed to live is when she started to get better. The advantage about being positive is that it would always stay positive but negative could change at any time.

Thando acknowledged that ignorance had probably contributed to her family dying. Instead of getting tested, their families had thought it better to consult healers and prophets. She had no doubt that her family had perished because of HIV/AIDS. She felt sad for had they been tested perhaps they would have been alive. Thando always thought her life was meant for a purpose of sharing her story with others to encourage them that HIV/AIDS was no longer the elephant in the room. She was willing to tell her story to anyone who would listen because she wanted to make a difference to someone else’s life. She was now based in Zimbabwe working with a local charity on HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention campaigns.

Thando has learnt a lot from the time she discovered her HIV status. The HIV epidemic has turned into a tragedy for many people in sub-Sahara Afrika where it ravaged many lives for most of the decade leading to the early 90’s. Many epidemiologists have given causes and preventative measures but some people still continue to die. This is particularly worrying given that both the social and biomedical aspects of health are supposed to ensure infection and death rates decrease. It is sad that some people infect others on purpose because they get comfort in numbers. In order to feed their denial people are willing to put other’s lives and health at risk by not getting tested.    

To not get tested is selfish in this day and age of biomedicine where people can live longer lives due to anti-retroviral therapy. These days the elephant in the room can be talked about openly as this is a measure that saved many lives. It is almost as if stigma and shame has gone away because people just want to live normal lives. There will always be people with risk accumulative behaviour but, a lot of work on development and empowerment from dedicated people ensures people have full facts. Preventative measures, getting tested and acceptance is the key to a longer, healthy and happy life where there are no elephants to be seen and ignored.