Finding out your HIV status can be a life-altering moment, especially when you are young and have much to look forward to. But being HIV positive need not be a death sentence. You can make your status work for you in a positive way, and help better the lives many South Africans in the same situation.
Someone who has done this is 29-year-old Bonginkosi Mthembu-Moloi. He is HIV positive, and now works as a treatment literacy co-ordinator for the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), Ekurhuleni District (Gauteng).
Bonginkosi, originally from Duduza, in Nigel, found out that he was HIV positive while he was working at a local clinic as a counsellor. He felt that, since part of his job entailed informing people about their HIV status, it was only right that he know his own. He tested in 2002 and the test result came back positive.
But that wasn’t the only reason he decided to be tested. Bonginkosi says he suspected the worst when his partner at the time went to hospital and started taking TB treatment without telling him. Eventually, he found out the truth and concluded that his partner had infected him, because he was his first sexual partner and they had not used protection when having sex. Bonginkosi was only 20 at the time.
He says his life changed when he found out that he was HIV positive. “But I chose not to focus on the negative, but rather on knowing more about the virus that was living inside my body. I decided to make a difference in my community and create awareness about HIV/Aids.
“I’ve decided not to apply for a government grant. I want to continue working for myself. This decision empowers both me and my community.”
Bonginkosi says he was fortunate to have the full support of his family and a special friend. His mother and his friend, who is also his mentor, saw him through it all. “I was blessed to have their support. Some people are not as fortunate because their families turn their backs on them when they learn that they are HIV positive. Some are even kicked out of their homes and disowned.”
It wasn’t easy though, as in a typical South African community there is still a lot of stigma attached to the virus. Members of his community started gossiping about him when he disclosed his status in 2004. “I came out at various community churches and was even asked to give talks at support groups. People said mean things about me, such as that I contracted HIV because I’m gay. I ignored them and thought to myself that those very same people would one day come to me for advice, because this virus can affect anyone. It’s not about your sexual preference.”
He says this was a trying time, and he thought about committing suicide. “I was very depressed to the point where my mom sent me to social workers. They referred me to a doctor, who prescribed anti-depressants. I also went for counselling. I decided not to let it get to me. I stood up and fought for my health and what I believed in.”
According to Bonginkosi, it’s very important not to be stressed when you are living with HIV, as this can have a negative effect on your health. He adds that they often advise people to try to avoid doing CD4 counts when they are stressed, because chances are the results won’t be good. Bonginkosi, a homosexual, is now married to a loving, caring partner.
He didn’t take anti-retrovirals (ARVs) when he was first diagnosed, because his CD4 count was high. However, he started treatment for the first time in August 2011, because his CD4 count dropped to 134. “I am now taking the ARVs, TDF, 3TC and EFV, which I started on 24th August. I experienced some side effects such as hallucination, dizziness and fatigue, but now my body is getting used to the treatment and the support that I receive from my partner really keeps me going.”
Nonetheless, Bonginkosi continues his work as an activist. He says saving people’s lives through counselling and support is what keeps him going. He adds that it’s rewarding to see patients doing better and looking stronger.
Apart from being a TAC treatment literacy co-ordinator, he has represented South Africa at conferences around the globe as an Ambassador of Hope. He has taken part in various AIDS awareness campaigns and has even had some of his work exhibited in Mexico.
But what’s the difference between being an activist and an ambassador? “As an activist, you accommodate everyone. An ambassador represents only a certain group of people. When I went overseas, I represented young South Africans living with HIV/AIDS. It was all about getting our stories out there. Young people from around the world gathered and shared ideas.”
One of the most touching stories he’s heard is of a young Swaziland girl. “She highlighted how fortunate we are because we have rights in this country and can fight for them. Where she comes from, they can’t even stage a protest without being arrested. They also have to pay for treatment, whereas we get it free from our government.”
Bonginkosi says that, although we may have rights, South Africa still has a long way to go because of the stigma and ignorance attached to HIV/AIDS. He believes that South Africa is doing well in terms of providing ARV treatment, but that not everybody knows what is available. “If the ARV medicine that you need is not available at your local health facility – you must be referred to a big hospital in your area. There is always another drug to try. There is no such thing as a final treatment. Don’t let anyone tell you this. It is your right to get the best treatment.
“We come from a government that neglected HIV/AIDS, but the current Minister of Health is more hands-on when it comes to fighting it. I have faith that we will get there one day.”