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Hosanna (part III): It’s important that people living with HIV have a sense of empowerment

Hosanna found out she was HIV-positive 15 years ago, and has since founded Hwupenyu Health and Wellbeing in Glasgow, a support service that aims to provide empowerment to women living with HIV. In 2016, she

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Hosanna found out she was HIV-positive 15 years ago, and has since founded Hwupenyu Health and Wellbeing in Glasgow, a support service that aims to provide empowerment to women living with HIV. In 2016, she won the African Communities Award at the nOscars, a ceremony hosted by sexual health charity Naz, to recognise BME people challenging HIV stigma and homophobia.

So… you know you get those eureka moments? One morning I woke up and I said to myself, “I can start something for people living with HIV. I’ve been living with HIV myself!”

It’s really important that people living with HIV are given that sense of empowerment. I find when people are diagnosed with HIV something happens to them that makes them think they are not worth it. I’m saying actually you are worth it. You are somebody. You are. There is something special about you. And I need to get that across to them and it takes time because most of them are coming here with that sense of, ‘I am not worth it’.

I phoned a friend and said, “I’ve got this idea. Would you like to join me and we can start this?”

She was very willing to do it, so we did some research. As you start doing something I think nature has a way of showing you where to go. We started finding where we could get money to start this small project. This was in August 2013. We got funding shortly after Christmas, and decided we needed to look for a place to operate from, so we moved to Govan in Glasgow. The money wasn’t enough because we had to get the website up, we had to pay rent and these people wanted to see our website, they wanted to see that we were doing something and they wanted us to register as a charity.

Then the colleague that I started with, she was a trained massage therapist and kept insisting, “We need to do massage! We need to do massage!” I had no understanding of massage whatsoever. For me it was like, “Why are we involving massage really? We are people living with HIV.” And she kept saying “well, but massage has been known to be very good for people living with HIV.”

Empowerment for women living with HIV through massage

Apparently the literature out there actually says that when you massage someone with HIV, it tends to activate their immune system to work. When we are on treatment, it actually helps with the re-boosting of the immune system. It is not medical science so many people don’t want to talk about it, but it can be a real tool for empowerment and inclusion.

We find that many people living in isolation with HIV have never been touched. I’ve had experiences of women who have been diagnosed and have never been intimate with anybody since they got their diagnosis.

When you get to that level, you really are living in isolation. And massage – it’s that human touch, but it’s coming in a way that is working with their muscle tissue. That is very good for their well-being. We find many of our clients, when they come here some of them are quite depressed, lonely, and have such low self-esteem but after a few sessions of massage they are like, “You know what I’m actually starting to think I’m beautiful.”

That connection with another human being makes him or her feel special. Massage in itself is made to be something expensive – when I first got to know about it I used to see it in Hollywood films only, and I used to think it’s only white people who have massages. I could never think that I would be in a position to give or have massages myself. It’s comes off as a very posh thing. Actually, it’s a very basic, important thing that people need to have, with or without HIV. People need to have massage because it reduces your stress level; it improves your mental well-being. It gives you that lift, it gives you that joy, that feeling of being special, and it just makes you feel relaxed.

As we were applying to be a charity, I knew an organisation that used to finance my project when I was working for THT (Terence Higgins Trust). Therefore, we approached them and said, “You know we are doing this and we don’t have money for rent. We are a peer-led organisation being run, being led by people living with HIV and we are offering massage to people living with HIV. We really want you to help us.”

They agreed, which really helped us. However, we did not have money for a while and therefore it was volunteer-run for the whole of 2014, 2015 until August 2016.

If you look at the dynamics of African women coming to Scotland, living with HIV and being single parents – that is very complicated. The poverty level is quite high. Our service users are 70% women. We have quite a few older women but the majority of them are quite young women. Our outreach is all through word of mouth- and as for massage, we don’t only limit it to women, we also open it up to everyone regardless of gender, colour or sexuality as long as one is living with HIV.

Relating to someone’s culture is a form of empowerment

Every time I meet a young woman, we sit down, we create a relationship, and they tell me what is going on. Sometimes they just come in to talk, and that makes a huge difference. Because we are the same, we can relate on an equal level. In addition, I think people really need that. Sometimes we think people need money. People do not always need money. We have been running this charity without money for the last two years. People are coming for that sense of dignity. In addition, if you don’t understand a person’s culture, how can you give them that dignity?

Culture really plays an important role and is one of the reasons I formed this organization. We cannot actually divorce ourselves from our culture. Culture plays a major role for all people, including those of African heritage who get HIV. The majority of our young women who have contracted HIV, they contracted not because they are promiscuous, but because of culture. Cultural expectations determine how they navigate, how they negotiate for safe sex, how they go along with their relationships. I understand quite perfectly because I was one of those young African women. I was one of those women who was exposed to HIV because of the culture. Unless we start changing, start talking and start addressing those issues around culture, we are still going to continue getting many young African women being infected. In addition, we need to address those issues, and a lot of that is about gender and cultural dynamics that our young women are expected to go through.

These issues are centred on marriage, how important marriage is: your identity is based on a husband. I used to believe that as well. I used to be of those women who used to perpetuate that thinking. However, no way should it be. Marriage is just something that happens, but if it doesn’t then you are no less of a person.

Culture is not static, it is dynamic. It changes. Evolution happens, people change. However, it needs people who actually go out and say, ‘let’s change this’. It will not happen on its own because some people actually thrive on those negative aspects of culture where they can have control. Therefore, we need to start addressing those things. It takes time- I know it will not happen in my generation but I am sure for every person- one women I touch here, one woman I work with, they will go touch their own space and slowly it spreads out. That is the meaning of empowerment.

I used to think I can change the world, and I can: I do it one person at a time.

Read the first part of Hosanna’s story, about her husband’s HIV and living in Zimbabwe, here. Read part two of Hosanna’s story here. Find out more about her organisation Hwupenyu Health and Wellbeing here.


1000women is a platform for minority ethnic women to tell their own stories, on their terms. To find out more about joining the team or sharing your story, write to 1000women@naz.org.uk

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