I was diagnosed HIV-positive in August 1987. As a Theology student I had to change hospitals, and at the new hospital they included an HIV test in the routine blood. The doctor simply told me that I was HIV-positive. It was a tremendous shock because I didn’t even know I was being tested for HIV.
At that time very little was known about HIV in South Africa. However, the doctors concluded that I must have been infected by the blood clotting products that I was being injected with regularly because I’m a haemophiliac.
When I was diagnosed HIV-positive, I decided that, since I was probably going to live for only a short time and couldn’t have children, I should end my relationship. When I told Liesel that she should be with someone who could offer her a better future, and with whom she could lead a happy life and have children she became quite angry. She said she loved me before I learned I was HIV-positive and the virus could not change that. However, it did change our relationship, in that the bond between us become even stronger than before!
Eight months later, Liesel and I were married. It was my birthday, and also Ascension Sunday. For me, this was a strong symbol of hope – the knowledge that this was the day commemorating that Christ had risen and so had brought hope to the world. Even before we were married we accepted the fact that we could not have children because of the high risk that they would be infected with HIV at birth, and of course there was the risk of Liesel also becoming infected. the thought of actually having children never crossed our minds because the risks were too great.
In May 1992 we decided that I should go public about my HIV-positive status. We were living in Windhoek, Namibia, where I was working as a minister in a local church congregation. There was a massive amount of media coverage and it was all very sympathetic towards me because I had been infected through a blood product which I had been given for medical reasons. The media treated me as an ‘innocent victim’ but those who contracted HIV through sex were condemned as having got it ‘through their own doing’. These days I never talk about how I contracted HIV because it only seems to reinforce the prejudice and discrimination which is still practised against people who have contracted HIV through sex or injecting drug use. We are all broken people, with our own flaws and failings. We are all in need of God’s grace.
I had a vision of working with youth, of telling them about HIV and showing them that people living with HIV are still normal people, but that we are also able to spread a message of hope. So we returned to South Africa, where I worked with the United Christian Student Association on youth outreach programmes, using a peer educator approach. It became clear, however, that youth were often better informed about HIV than their parents, so we really needed to reach all sections of society. I then joined a South African insurance company, and for the next eight years Liesel and I presented HIV/AIDS information and shared our experiences of living with HIV in churches, schools, women’s meetings and other groups throughout the country. My own hope was gradually growing throughout this time. In January 1998 a friend gave me an olive tree, which in Biblical terms symbolises hope. It was only a small seedling, and I asked him if he didn’t have a bigger one – olives take three or four years to bear fruit, and I was not expecting to live that long. But after three years we harvested our first crop. We have since moved to Johannesburg and now we have six big olive trees planted along our driveway – hope in abundance!
In April 2002, after 14 years of marriage and many, many discussions about whether or not we should have children, we decided we should give it a try. By this time, medical science had advanced very considerably. By taking antiretroviral drugs, I was able to reduce the viral load in my body to the point where it was medically undetectable. Until then, we had always used condoms to protect Liesel from infection and prevent her becoming pregnant. Less than a month after we stopped using condoms, Liesel became pregnant. Nine months later, Anika Greyling was born. Anika is truly a gift of how we have experienced God’s grace – grace that I’m still alive, that medical science has made this possible, and that this baby was granted to us as an instrument of hope. Two years later our second daughter, Mia, came into the world. God surely works his miracles even in this day and age, and He does it in his own unique way! When Liesel and I look at Mia’s little face and hold Anika in our arms, we realize how differently our lives have turned out from when we were married, 18 years ago. Then, Liesel wasn’t sure that we would even see our first wedding anniversary. And today, we have two healthy, HIV-negative children!
There’s a Chinese proverb that says: ‘If you have a vision for a year, plant wheat; if you have a vision for ten years, plant a tree; if you have a vision for life – have children!’ Now, thanks to God’s grace, antiretroviral drugs and condoms, and with the support of my family, friends and work colleagues, I’ve been through all three phases!