Affua: HIV revealed the real strength in me
Affua came to the UK from Zimbabwe in 2002. She was diagnosed with HIV a few years after. Here she talks about how being diagnosed allowed her to discover new strength and a passion for
Affua came to the UK from Zimbabwe in 2002. She was diagnosed with HIV a few years after. Here she talks about how being diagnosed allowed her to discover new strength and a passion for volunteer work.
HIV has revealed some ability and strength in me that I didn’t know I had. Since my diagnosis, my life has never been the same. Behind every woman there is a story. Let me tell you my story.
Back in Zimbabwe, I was married for 16 years. Men are allowed to do anything to you as long as you married to them there. My relationship with my husband was emotionally, psychologically and financially abusive. We lived in poverty, not that my husband was not working. He was, but deprived me of things I would regard as basic. But in the African culture, we don’t look at all that, as long as you are married.
Around 2000, I had an ectopic pregnancy. I had a major surgery and my fallopian tube was removed, and had a blood transplant as well. Time went by, and I started getting some bloodstains on my tongue, but I didn’t know what it was for a long time, I’m talking about almost a year. Then in 2002, I came to the UK with my sister and nephew, and started working as a health assistant.
I worked for almost eight months, but I started feeling unwell. I started losing weight, losing strength. In a way I was happy, because I’d come to a community where losing weight and being skinny is classified as healthy and sexy. So I was comfortable with that, though I knew something was chewing me out from within.
Finding the strength to face an HIV diagnosis
One day, in December 2003, I went to work and collapsed. That’s when they started really looking into my situation, why I was deteriorating like that. And then the next thing, they said I had TB. It was TB that was chewing me right away from Zimbabwe when I had those blood stains. I didn’t know anything about it at all and never thought I could have it.
It affected my brains, my spine. I was hospitalized for two weeks, put into isolation. After that long battle with TB I was literally paralysed, they started to teach me how to sit, because I couldn’t sit or even stand. I couldn’t even get up, I couldn’t even walk. It was really bad. My speech was gone and I was mentally disturbed seriously. That’s when they requested to have an HIV test. And I’m thinking to myself, “HIV test? I’ve never been promiscuous. I’ve never had a string of boyfriends. I’ve been loyal. I’ve been a Christian. I was the best girl and the best wife. So why HIV?”
After about three days they came in and told me I was HIV positive. That was a bomb. That nearly killed me. The first thing I thought about was just to jump through the window and die. I thought about my son who I had breastfed for almost two years. I thought about a lot of things, but I was so weak that I couldn’t do anything. My immune system had been compromised to a CD4 count as low as 10.
I went to a support group in Enfield, and on the first day, oh my God, I went into this room and saw a lot of men and women and they looked so strong and healthy. And then I’m told they are all HIV positive and I couldn’t believe it. Some of them were from Zimbabwe, so I managed to speak with them in my language and they said “yes, all of us”.
I never thought about HIV at all even when I was in Zimbabwe. I was so ignorant about it. To me HIV is some skinny bony person, who can’t even talk, who has hair that’s falling. But none of them had that. That’s when they told me, “Now we are okay”. People are having fun in that group. So I was looking forward to coming back for another session. And that was so motivating and so uplifting.
Then I started to going on some training in volunteering, leadership, TB and all sorts and I liked it. I discovered an ability and strength in me that I never knew. I started going for volunteer courses, TB training courses, sharing my experiences. I felt like I had a responsibility to warn anyone around me about the HIV virus so they will not be in the same predicament I was in. I even went to spend some time with people living with HIV at North Middlesex Hospital. Someone did this for me, so I thought that I can do it too. It was an opportunity to give back. I started engaging, and I was really serious and I liked it, I simply had the passion to volunteer. Something really just came out. The real me came out. That strong Affua, I didn’t know before my diagnosis.
I knew it was my husband who gave it to me. That’s what I thought. But as time went on, with more education, I didn’t want to focus on how I got it. I thought, “you know what; I’m not going to focus on that, I’m just going to focus and manage my health.”
I volunteered with almost every organization in the UK. When it came to applying for my immigration status at the Home Office, they wanted to see what I had done, what would make them keep me in the UK. I had a big file full of certificates, magazines, books, I had been everywhere. The most memorable thing was when I had the opportunity to speak at this conference and sharing a platform with Desmond Tutu in Knightsbridge.
To be honest, really, HIV showed me what I am capable of doing. Instead of HIV bringing me down, something that was hidden in me just came out. And that person was so vocal, had so much strength.
I remember when I started taking my treatment, with the TB I started taking 22 tablets per day. Per day. Then after TB, I started taking about 6 tablets for HIV, and now I’m just taking one. It’s working well. The regime that I started with when I started my HIV treatment is the same one I’m still on now. I don’t miss my treatment no matter what. My adherence level has been on 100% for the past 12 years.
I think I took a positive stance with my HIV diagnosis because if I had my diagnosis in Zimbabwe, I would have been history by now. I don’t have time to be stressing about it. I don’t have time to mourn about it. This is life, such is life. I tried to take everything positive.
Find out more: Volunteering to support those affected by HIV
If you would like to get involved in voluntary work with HIV support groups and organisations in the UK, visit Positive East and The National Aids Trust volunteer page. For opportunities in the North-West, visit George House Trust.
Illustration by Jane Shepherd. To read more stories from women living with HIV, click here.