Setting an example and...Living Positively With HIV
by CHRISTOF MALETZKY
September 3, 1999 - The Namibian
- MATTHIAS Isando Nunuheb was all fired up for the conference on people living positively with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. Long before the landmark conference was finalised, the 23 year-old from Katutura had prepared his speech on the goals of the gathering - a speech that would have gone down in his short history as one of his greatest hours.
But sadly this was not to be. Two days before he was to announce publicly that he was HIV positive and call on many other infected people to live positively with the virus that cuts across all sectors of Namibia's society, he died.
His brother Menassius had to read the speech at the opening of the conference which is being attended by more than 300 people - many of them HIV positive.
I have waited for a conference of people living positively for a very long, long time. One thing in Namibia is that we don't talk about positive life. It is important that we don't discriminate and are not secretive about AIDS. It is all around us, we need to speak out and learn how to live positively," the late Isando, who helped organise the conference, said through the mouth of his brother who read his speech.
Isando's fight was over before he could start it publicly. But there are many others, like Mario, who have vowed to run with the flame of hope.
Also living positively since he discovered that he was infected, the young man who introduced himself only as Mario said he did not expect to speak at the conference.
"But I am positive," he boldly declared, adding "and want to make sure that I life positively. I want to ensure that the future of my children will be positive and secured. I made many mistakes in my life, but ever since I knew my status, I lived positively," he said in the emotionally-charged opening ceremony attended by President Sam Nujoma.
He said he had found hope and acceptance after joining a Catholic Aids Action group of HIV-positive people who meet weekly at the Bernhard Nordkamp Centre in Katutura and now wants to help himself as well as others around him.
The group members expressed concern that the messages heard about HIV-AIDS prevention did not include them.
"AIDS is always identified as a killer-disease. Although this is true eventually, someone who lives positively with the HIV-virus can live for a long time. And during this time they can hold a job, take care of their families and remain active in the community. It is in everyone's interest to promote the concept of living positively, for as long as this is possible," explained Agnes Tom, Khomas regional representative for Catholic AIDS Action and a counsellor.
Sessions at the conference which ends today, deal with good health and nutrition, sexual expression for people who are HIV positive, what it means to live positively, spirituality and legal rights.
"As the first conference of its kind in the country, we believe that this proves that many people want to break down the walls of secrecy that have surrounded discussion of this disease for such a long time. This is a good thing. We want to continue sending a message of AIDS-prevention, but even if you have the disease there is still a lot that you can do to help yourself, live a meaningful life and protect others," said Dr Lucy Steinitz, national consultant for Catholic AIDS Action.
This was acknowledged by both the late Isando and Mario.
"We want to be part of the national planning on HIV and be part of the fight against HIV-AIDS," said Mario.
The conference will shift the emphasis of the fight to include more of the care component which has not received precedence in Namibia so far.
And this even President Nujoma admitted when he addressed the opening ceremony.
"It is true that many initiatives that deal with the AIDS pandemic have focussed mainly on preventing infection and thereby reducing the spread of this deadly deadly virus. Little attention has been paid to the needs of those infected and affected by HIV-AIDS in one way or another," he said.
He said AIDS have a wider impact on the country as a whole and, therefore, those dealing with the fight must not lose sight of the individuals living with the disease.
"Our initiatives to deal with this epidemic should therefore involve the element of promoting meaningful lives for those already infected. We are aware that a person living with HIV infection can continue to contribute positively to our society and continue to live as an economically productive individual," he said.
He said the message must be clear to Namibians. The discrimination against infected people must end because it will have a detrimental effect on efforts to combat AIDS if those people are ostracised.
"One of the reasons why HIV-AIDS infection is spreading rapidly in Namibia is because those who are infected are afraid to reveal their HIV status for fear of the negative repercussions that will follow. In the same vein, the population is generally apprehensive of being tested for HIV-AIDS for fear of discrimination," he said.
Many others present at the occasion agreed that a environment be created in which infected people can feel comfortable in making their status known because such people can be effective campaigners in bringing about behavioural change.
The people living positively like Mario and the late Isando can be strong and potent weapons in the armoury to bring the message home, as Nujoma put it.
Organisers hope that a lot more openness will prevail after the conference which rightfully has been titled "conference of hope" will give more people who live positively hope and freedom to come to the front and be leaders and not just be led.
LIVING POSITIVELY...Mario has HIV, but has been living positively since he became aware of his status. He is seen with Agnes Tom, Khomas regional representative for Catholic AIDS Action, and also his counsellor.
FALLEN HERO...Menassius, brother of the late Matthias Isando Nunuheb who died of AIDS two days before the opening of the conference on people living positively with HIV, reads his speech. Counsellor Agnes Tom stands by.