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Health & Fitness

I want to fight HIV stigma, I have felt its pinch

Melissa Ikirezi, 21, was born HIV positive and
Melissa Ikirezi, 21, was born HIV positive and now wants young people living with the disease to find hope. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA |  NATION MEDIA GROUP

When I was 11, I started suspecting that something was not right. I had this feeling that my family was hiding something from me.

The curiosity grew when I got this letter that my mother had written to her friend. My parents died of Aids-related illnesses. My father when I was three and my mother when I was six.

In the letter, my mother had told her friend about her condition and expressed her worry for her little girl. I was that little girl and now I wanted to know my HIV status. I started persistently asking my three older sisters to get me tested.

After one year, when I was 13, they agreed. Honestly speaking I didn’t know what I would do if I found out that I was positive. I didn’t care; all I wanted was to get tested. Then I found out that I was HIV positive, but it sunk in later when I went to boarding school.

My roommates started asking me why I was always taking medicines. The school nurse had asked me not to tell anyone about my status. I lied to them, feigning that I had different kinds of diseases.

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One day a friend asked why I always took the same drugs for different diseases. I decided to stop taking the drugs. I thought that if I stopped, the questions would end. They did, and I started becoming sick.

That is when I knew that HIV is like a neighbour. You respect it, it respects you back. If you take your ARVs consistently then it will never cause you harm; you will live a healthy life.

I became very sick. I was transferred to a high school closer to my sisters in Kigali. The headmistress there was a strong and kind woman who had been friends with my mother.

“If you keep your status a secret, you will hurt yourself,” she told me. “If you feel you are ready, you can tell your secret to your best friends. You might feel the pain of rejection but you will finally be free.”

Shoulders to lean on

I thought my best friend would keep the secret but she didn’t. Soon all the 700 students in the school knew about my condition. I was now alone and excluded from almost everything. That was very painful.

Later on I met a woman who changed my life. Claire had something that most HIV positive people didn’t have. She had hope for the future. She dressed well, was beautiful and very professional. She was 25 then.

I asked her if I would live to reach 25 and she responded that if I took my ARVs I would live longer. Honestly, as a young girl it was not easy to be consistent with the treatment until I found a secret. Focus.

The only reason I keep taking these drugs is because I hope for a better future. I am waiting for the day science will find a cure for Aids. And I want to live long enough to see that day.

As a teenager, it wasn’t easy because I felt different. Some schoolmates accepted me, some pitied me while others rejected me.

I had a boyfriend who knew my status. We were okay until some people, like some of you think, told him that he shouldn’t date a girl living with HIV unless he wanted to die. We broke up a few months later. It was very painful because I felt as if I smelled like death. But I never allowed that to stop me from moving forward.

What matters most isn’t how people view you, but how you view yourself. If you feel inferior and you think death stalks you, then you will be counted among the minority and you will die.

Today, being HIV positive is a big deal. It is a horrible thing. It is seen as the end of the world.

On the contrary, it is not. The difference between me and someone who is HIV negative is that I have a virus floating in blood. Just that.

As a young woman living positively, life hasn’t been smooth. I have been rejected, faced stigma and even been deprived of the right to be loved or to love. I have been scared, wondering what the future holds.

HIV isn’t the real problem; dealing with challenges that come with it is. So if you are HIV positive stop living negatively: Live.

Deal with the challenges as they come. You can’t dance to music which is yet to be played; you need to listen to the music then dance.

If you aren’t dancing to music then you are scared of the public, or too lazy to dance. I’ve chosen to dance and I don’t really care if the public approves or disapproves of my dance.

In Rwanda, my story has helped thousands of young people living with HIV/Aids find hope. Now that I am here in Kenya, I want to do the same.

When I joined an HIV organisation and met other young people like myself who have HIV but are still moving forward with their lives, I decided I would talk openly about my status.

My request to you, as an infected or affected young person reading this story, is that let’s join hands to be the change we want to see.

Together we will be able to create a generation free of stigma, discrimination, rejection and help reduce new infections.

Once you go to the hospital and find out that you’re HIV positive, the first advice you get is to keep it secret. Don’t be scared of the future. Infected or not, we all live in uncertainty.

Stop pitying yourself. To friends and colleagues, stop being ignorant. Discrimination and stigma isn’t right and you know that being HIV positive isn’t a choice that we made.

If we had an option we would not have chosen to carry the virus. So, stop saying that it is a punishment from God, a curse or that we deserved it.

And for those newly diagnosed, the virus is just a comma in the sentence that is your life. Keep on writing, there is a lot to write about.

And for family, friends and colleagues this is the time to make yourself useful and support us in writing this amazing story by accepting, encouraging and giving us shoulders to lean on when in low spirits. Let us count on you.

If we don’t do anything about HIV today the infections will keep rising. I believe in prevention rather than protection.

If you test positive, purpose to protect everyone. And if you test negative, ensure you never test positive.

There are people who have made a big difference in my life, moulding me into the kind of young woman I am today. The man who loved me and took care of me like his own daughter. Thanks dad. And Claire, the beautiful HIV positive woman who inspired me. Because of her, I always want to take the next step.

Thanks to my precious sisters, you have been there for me always.

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