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Driven into solitude by stigma

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FOUGHT STIGMA—Mponda

Forced out of his clan’s inherited settlement due to his condition, Davie Mponda opted for a desolate location from where the medication he is taking is working without a glitch. ALICK PONJE writes.

A solitary, small, raw-brick house with its grass thatch falling apart makes the home of Davie Mponda, who shifted to a secluded location in his village after testing HIV positive nine years ago.

Theirs had been a cheerful extended family until Mponda fell sick time after time and decided to have his blood tested.

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“My body’s strength reached its lowest point after tuberculosis struck me. I spent some days in the intensive care unit at Salima District Hospital before I finally decided to have my blood tested,” says the 45-year-old father of three from Chenyama Village some kilometres east of Salima Town.

He harks back to that time of distress during which shingles, pneumonia and malaria almost took away his life.

But it was the unkind treatment he got from his relations, including his parents, that drove him away from their midst as he desperately searched for havens of peace and freedom.

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“Sometimes, they could even refuse to have meals together with me. But, somehow, I understood their actions. In most villages, an HIV-positive diagnosis meant a death sentence,” Mponda says.

Sitting on a windblown veranda of his small house with its walls heavily tainted with soot, he hopes no one experiences what happened to him nine years ago.

He states that when he moved to where his family now lives— away from other households in his village—his feeling was that he might die there in a few years until he was initiated on treatment two years later.

“I had to battle terrible feelings of despair. But with the support that I got from my wife, I remained strong. Though she might have clearly known that I had brought HIV to the house, she did not forsake me,” Mponda says.

To date, he believes accepting one’s condition is what matters most in terms of medication working optimally.

The qualified driver, who has worked in Lilongwe and Blantyre before, does not want to claim he does not know how he contracted the one-time virus.

“As a driver, I used to spend several days away from home. I sought comfort in the company of women who might have infected me,” Mponda says.

Now, almost a decade after he tested positive, he is adamant about living positively.

“I know my status and I know how to take care of myself and others. Worse are those who continue living without knowing their status. They cannot be put on treatment even when they should.”

While his family has stuck to their lonesome home surrounded by green maize fields and tall thick-trunked trees, with no other house in the vicinity, they are content to move on in the face of whatever tried to bring them down.

“I am happy that I am able to reach out to others who are frequently falling sick so that they can get tested. I have my own ways of convincing them to do that. I also persuade those who have been diagnosed positive to come out in the open and live happy lives,” Mponda says.

He garnered the confidence after he was approached by an HIV care activist who about two, decades ago, decided to mobilise a few people in Mponda’s village, where she also comes from, to seek ways of containing a raging crisis in the area.

Harriet Tembo Phiri says the frequent deaths in her location troubled her because there was all evidence that a raging scourge was sweeping across homes.

“Funerals were all over. People spent their time burying their relations or nursing the sick. It was a crisis and we decided to come in and help save the situation,” Phiri says.

Their efforts reached many people in the lakeshore district including Major Austin and his wife Jenipher, who say they got rid of depression after being counselled that an HIV-positive diagnosis is not a death sentence.

The couple says it does everything to take care of itself in the face of the fact that poverty often threatens their health, which needs to be sustained with proper food nutrients.

“The first days were difficult. But for 15 years, we have lived normal lives despite that challenges cannot be completely ruled out. We explained to our children so that they know our status and give us all the required support,” he says.

On the other hand, the raging Covid-19 pandemic is disrupting efforts of HIV-positive men and women who continue fighting to remain on their feet.

Austin says he has seen couples going back without getting their anti-retroviral drugs due to the drawn-out time they are required to spend at the hospital.

“Only small groups are allowed into rooms and sometimes people spend the whole day trying to get their drugs. Then there are others who come from very remote areas and realise that they are required to put on masks before they can be allowed through the hospital gate,” he explains.

He also admits that the pandemic is creating panic among people on treatment as they feel they are at a higher risk of dying from it especially if they default on medication.

That is one of Phiri’s biggest worries.

She says her desire is to see that everyone on treatment continues with their prescriptions without any disruption to beat the threat of Aids-related illness.

“The danger is that if people who are on treatment default due to Covid-19 restrictions, they may get sick again. They will be susceptible to opportunistic diseases. This should not happen,” Phiri says.

According to Avert, a United Kingdom-based charity that provides information about HIV and sexual health worldwide, disrupting treatment should be avoided at all cost.

“If you do not take your medication correctly (at the right time every day), the level of HIV in your blood may increase and the treatment may stop working. This is known as developing drug resistance,” the organisation says.

For Mponda, the only thing that can disrupt his medication would have been the stigma that he used to be shown. Luckily, he says, he defeated it.

For Austin and his wife, taking their medication on empty stomachs has sometimes led to dizziness and general body pains, which have almost forced them to spike the drugs when they have nothing for breakfast.

They hope such a time will never come.

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