Societal Pressure & HIV – a Harmful Connection

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— By Thato from Lesotho

Earlier this year, I laid to rest a very close cousin of mine, Chikabo. The last I saw of him was in 2014 at the Maseru border. He was so full of life and always had some insane story to share. I vividly recall how he would always make me miss my ride with his never ending hilarious stories. Even with all my intent, I never got to see him when he fell ill; I wanted to remember him as I knew him, happy and full of life.

He died of AIDS related illness.

Before that I also laid my uncle to rest. Born in 1970, Uncle Sam was such a sweet man. When I went to see him, he was a shadow of his former self; his skeleton was sprawled on the bed and I just felt the need to add more meat to his skinny structure and bring him to his old form. He arrived in January from Johannesburg, South Africa. I got a call from my mother telling me that he had arrived and was very sick. Uncle Sam was HIV positive. He made the statistics of the many friends and relatives I have lost to HIV/AIDS.

HIV & Denial

The sad thing about these two loves of mine is that although they had known all along that they were infected with HIV, they both admitted to having ceased to take their medication when they were feeling better. By the time they wanted to resume medication intake, it was already too late. I am not sure whether I am angry at them for having cared less about their lives or angry at the stigma surrounding HIV, which has put so much pressure on people, to the extent that people would rather die than face this monster. In Lesotho for instance, there still exist people who view HIV as the white person or urban people’s disease, while others would blame witchcraft when they test positive.

Any HIV related topic has become so cliché, yet people are still not educated. At the beginning of the voluntary male medical circumcision campaigns in the country, I could hear the excitement in the air about the newly found freedom to have unprotected sex. The fact that male circumcision reduces the risk of female-to-male sexual transmission of HIV by approximately 60% translated differently to many, so I assume. To many this meant freedom to have unprotected sex. When all is said and done, comes denial, which is seen when people refuse to take medication, stop taking the medication when they feel better or resort to traditional remedies instead.

Of the many funeral services I attended where I knew quite well that the person was HIV positive, it was never disclosed how one’s life came to an end. The cause of death was always pinned to tuberculosis or witchcraft. This denial bothers me deeply. The fact that there are other diseases which are more dangerous than HIV should be comforting to people infected with HIV. Statistics shriek daily about the horrors of ever increasing diabetes and cancer related deaths, yet people are still more worried about a disease which, with the help of antiretroviral, is manageable.

HIV & Women

This is sad news for Lesotho, who is rated second in terms of HIV prevalence. Studies have revealed that women are the ones mostly affected by HIV, the very same studies which have shown that women test more than their male counter parts. Patriarchal society has exposed women to this scourge and other things like gender based violence. Women in Lesotho are still seen as minors, which deprives them of the negotiating power when it comes to sexual matters in their relationships. A woman in Lesotho cannot demand the use of condoms in the home because such behavior is frowned upon. Men are the ones with the final say in the majority of matters Our society has okay-ed men’s habits of dating several women while women are expected not to question such behavior. This has not only exposed women to HIV infections it also has contributed to other forms of gender-based violence.

While the Gender agenda has placed so much emphasis on gender equality, the need has never been this great for Basotho women to be empowered to own the negotiation power when it comes to sexual matters in their relationships. Women should be able to insist on the use of condom if they feel a need for such, they should also be able to say no to sex without being made to feel guilty. The unfortunate thing is that a woman is always blamed when their husband passes on, either she infected him or bewitched him if not some silly story far related to HIV.

It is quite unsettling to belong to a society that condones such nonsensical behaviors; this exerts so much pressure on an individual who sees things otherwise. I always feel like a black sheep and a rebel when I talk with my friends and colleagues about the need to use condoms in our relationship; be it with a spouse or a partner. It is worth noting that research and studies have indicated that in Lesotho women are more forthcoming when it comes to HIV testing, while men are rather reluctant. The statistics goes on to show that women are mostly infected with HIV as compared to their counterparts. The use of a condom in the home should not be negotiable; this has the potential of decreasing HIV infections as well as maintaining happy relations where there won’t be a blame game when things turn sour.

I’m not my complexion

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— By Samantha from Kenya

Today I logged into a popular photo sharing app, as I was scrolling down my feed I came across a photo that I really liked. I proceeded to clicking on the persons’ page and the first thing my eyes met turned my amusement into disappointment; ‘Only light skins allowed, No dark skins.’ was written in the persons’ bio. My self-esteem dropped. I felt inferior and I was really angered by that sentence but, unfortunately, that was not the first time I had encountered such a ‘phrase’. I have watched movies and documentaries where the ‘darker tone’ was never the preferable choice, where a child is asked to choose between a good and bad, or ugly and beautiful tone. For many of their choices, the dark doll was bad and ugly… while the light/white one was the good and beautiful one.

You see I am a dark-skinned girl here in Kenya, my complexion has been downgraded and perceived as both dirty and ugly. Social media has tarnished my complexion and made ‘us’ seem as some sort of prey to be devoured by ugly memes through which we are compared to light-skinned girls. Polls are created where people are asked whom among the two, light versus dark skinned girl, is prettier, or who seems to be likely more successful than the other. Because of this, more dark-skinned women lighten/bleach their skin to ‘look prettier’. They use bleaching or ‘lightening’ products that will have a more repel effect on them in the future. Such products only worsen their natural beauty! With the fact that they disguise their true natural complexions with industrial bleaching agents, that make them ugly and plastic, they become industrial pawns to be laughed at and ridiculed by society. I personally know this because I have a relative who uses this kind of products.

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examples of memes and comments on social media

In a time where racism is ripe in the West, here in my country I feel racism is germinating before our eyes. It is a problem brought during the Colonial Era, and then it sparked after colonialism was over. The Westerners discriminated us for being black, now we discriminate our own race based on our complexion. The fact that someone from your own race passes judgment on you based on of your skin tone is dumbfounding. It utters the fact that some people…well we all need a re-evaluation on how far we have come as a race. Systematic racism is a plague.

I have made peace with that really awful ‘statement’ and realized that, only what we allow to hurt us can pierce our hearts and minds. As much as it is someone’s preference to like a certain complexion, some hurtful statements should be said indoors and not publicized. Complexion or skin color is just a feature and not the centerpiece of who we are as people. People should be judged by their morals and never ever by their skin color that they did not choose at birth.

For example, the fact that people are hired based on whether their complexion is no darker than a brown bag beat the purpose of why we keep going to school to study in the first place; does a brown bag determine my intellectual capability? Is IT worthy enough to determine whether I am well suited for the job? Does IT reflect how many hours I had spent reading and sacrificing time with family and friends to ensure I get that good job? The answer is NO!!! Hiring a person should be based on their leadership skills and work experience, not on complexion.

I am a being full of masses of intellect, so please don’t judge me before I speak, don’t be disgusted if I haven’t given you a chance to be and don’t refuse to serve me because of the sold out perception that all dark people are poor and dirty. Be civilized. Be human. This vice won’t end but, if you are being discriminated against because of that, blessing the almighty above has given you, learn to build a wall between you and them. Keep a high self-esteem. Don’t mask yourself with industrial creams that may ruin you, rejoice in that blessing. Don’t be ashamed. Be happy and glad as I am, because if I could change my skin color now, I know I would wish I would never have changed it. But guess what, it’s irreversible!! This complexion is our identity for sure and for sure it is not the ‘liked’ one but it is the one I like, and you should like yours too!

You can also find this story -and many others- on YaLa Press !

From Joy to Sorrow – The Untold Story

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— By Amaka from Nigeria

I could remember the day vividly; it was in April 2011, a sunny afternoon. It was when I had heavy loads of food (onions, dried fish and meat) on my head, rushing home to prepare for my journey to the East the following morning. It was quite affordable so that I could buy enough to share with the neighbors and relatives that would visit the house, a gesture to give them a warm welcome.

Overjoy would be an understatement of the way I felt during that period. It was a 2 weeks break during my National Service, a compulsory one-year program partaken by every eligible graduate to serve the country in another state. The National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) was created in a bid to reconstruct, reconcile and rebuild the country after the Nigerian Civil war, hence it was conceived as a way to encourage the development of common ties among the Nigerian youth and the promotion of “national unity” by posting graduates in other states to exchange values and interact with other regions, while carrying out a selfless service to the nation.

Mine was unique. Coming from the South Eastern part of the country, it was my first time visiting the North, a faraway city and an environment I have only seen on television. It had a unique culture along with divergent beliefs, values and traditions. Starting from our 3 weeks camp at Fika -the NYSC training ground- I could feel the difference; the hotness of the weather in the afternoon; the extreme coldness at night and in the early hours of the morning; a condition my body later adjusted to. I didn’t need an alarm to wake up in the morning because the early morning Muslim call to prayer was enough to set me prepared for the day.
My primary place of assignment was a secondary school in the capital city of Yobe State, Damaturu. Serving in a school exposed me to meeting and interacting with lots of students and staff whose daily language of communication is Hausa, thus I made it a duty to learn new words and try to communicate in the same language. It was one of the happiest moments of my life and I couldn’t help it. Then, for the first time I found myself eating one of the popular Hausa food (Tuwo shinkafa) a delicacy made with soft rice and spicy sauce, instead of the normal Eba (Food made from cassava) that I was used to eat all my life. It was just part of the fun. “fura da nono” nutritional drink, “Mia Kuka” soup and the popular dried meat “kilishi” were among the foods I enjoyed the most there. It was an adventure just like Alice in Wonderland.

With excitement, I compiled my stories, experiences and my encounters, including the ones from the villages where we conducted the 2011 elections. Every story had headlines so, for sure, I won’t forget any detail. My face was beaming with smiles and I could visualize the laughter, fun and happiness from my siblings, my dad and mum. I could already hear my dad asking questions with eagerness to know more, challenging me to their language with a speaking competition. My thoughts were occupied, I felt like a soldier coming back after a war while I was sharing my experiences.

The following morning, I headed to the park, bought my ticket and sat close to the window, where I could observe the environment, the mountains, the grazing cattle, the vast empty-land and the mud houses by the road sides. An 18-hour journey by bus, that was tough but fun.

Arriving in the South East, I boarded another vehicle home, expecting the usual shouts of welcome but when I arrived, everywhere looked dull, dried and unexciting. I met no one except for mum who was preparing food for my dad who was hospitalized. Without changing my clothes, I followed her to meet my dad and found him in a critical condition. I found myself asking questions that I never got answers to…“Since When? How did it happen? Why?” He welcomed me and just smiled like someone who found back something lost and has returned home. “Dad I’m fine, I have a lot to tell you when you recover. As I was busy trying to cheer him up, little did I know I was talking to a deaf ear… he never heard my stories.”

For a moment I felt nothing because I thought he was probably sleeping. The next moment, it seemed like I was in a dream. When I saw people gathering and shouting, I felt like I was in a trance. When I realized that he had passed away, I burst into uncontrollable tears. For the first time, my heart was heavy with pain, like a sword pierced my heart. Words seized and tears flowed down my cheeks, filling my heart and soul like water. Just like that? How could he? Why did it happen? How could I be coming home with happiness to encounter pain and sadness? Why the food that I bought for merriment and Easter is going to be used for burial? Why leave the same day I came back? There were questions that puzzled my heart for months. It was then that I understood the words of Washington Irving that say, “There is sacredness in tears, they are not the mark of weakness but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousands tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition and of unspeakable love. What an Irony of Life!”

He was such a good fellow, kind-hearted and a peace lover. He loved his first daughter more than anything. Willing to sacrifice his last item to save the hungry. He was so dear to me that few could understand, because bereavement is darkness impenetrable to all imaginations of the un-bereaved. Though gone his memories still lives.