Stigma of Aids in Zambia is devastating

We’re visiting with our farm project leaders. “Do you remember Jennifer?” Jessy asks us. We do. We visited her field last year. She was one of the widows who received a small farming loan and we were impressed with what she had done. “She died last year,” Jessy continued. The story distresses me: Jennifer had been sickly for some time and Jessy was trying to get her to go to the hospital. Finally she was so sick, he took her himself. She tested positive for the HIV/AIDS virus and the hospital started her on the antiretroviral (ARV) medication. Jessy took her home, showing the family how to administer the drugs. A month later when he inquired, he found she was not taking them. Needless to say, by that time it was too late and she died – with the life saving medication in her house. Why???

Any one of the farmers we work with could be HIV positive. But neither we, nor those standing around them, will probably ever know. Few will have the courage to go for testing and get the life saving ARVs.

The stigma of HIV/AIDS is still so very high in Zambia. Despite continued sensitization campaigns on TV, Radio, Billboards, in churches and before or after any type of public meetings, people of all ages, income status and education still do not go for testing out of fear of the results and what those around them would say. Or if they go, they don’t tell anyone. When forced to take the test some, like Jennifer, will die rather than admit to the disease by taking the ARVs.

Eliness attacks her life as an HIV positive individual as she does the bread dough: with strength and bravado.

Not Eliness. This 37 year old single mother publicly announces her status if asked. In 2004 she began feeling sick and feared the diagnosis. Two friends encouraged her to go for testing (they had both gone and were both positive) saying there were now drugs to treat the virus. She also was positive. Immediately she told her mother and late sister, which says something about her family. Most won’t say anything, afraid their family will shun them, will send them away because of the shame, or they will lose their jobs and friends. Eliness feels coming out with her status gives her the opportunity to learn to live more positively with the virus. It also gives others courage to ask her for advice and confide in her. She is a strong encourager in her community.

Eliness came to a Natural Medicine of the Tropics seminar a year ago. Suffering under the negative side effects of the ARVs, she had a strong desire to learn more about healing herbs. I visited with Eliness a few days ago. She successfully grew the Artemisia plants I gave her and propagated more. She still takes her ARVs but adds a daily cup of Artemisia tea and regularly consumes Moringa leaves. She insists she feels much better now. Artemisia is known to boost the immune system, and Moringa is often called the miracle plant because of its nutritional and healing properties. Eliness is a vibrant healthy woman today.

The stigma is all the more devastating as there isn’t a family in this country that isn’t affected in some way – either one of the members is HIV positive, or they are caring for the orphans of those that died.

I just wish there were more Elinesses and less Jennifers! In time it will come.

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