From tragedy to opportunity
In 1990, a scholarship he received to study political science in the Soviet Union required an HIV test. At that time, HIV-testing in Africa was rare, and AIDS counseling practically nonexistent. When he tested positive, Winston Zulu lost his scholarship and hope. Stuck at home, he turned despair into his first activism campaign: trying to convince his brothers, who played in a popular reggae band, to get tested. Two months later, one of his brothers died of TB.
“People had no real information about either TB or HIV”, Winston remembers. “Many believed that TB drugs could cure STDs (sexually transmitted diseases), like AIDS. One of the guys in the band with TB sold his TB drugs, so he could buy food. Some people associate diseases with witchcraft. And my father still believes the people in the band killed his children so they could run off with all the equipment.”
Since then two more of his brothers have died from TB and HIV/AIDS. His eldest brother, a truck driver for British Petroleum, had four wives when he died. Three of the four wives also died of TB and HIV/AIDS.
Winston started taking anti-retrovirals which he was lucky enough to get from friends abroad and foreign doctors at home. He also started talking to his remaining siblings, particularly his sisters. All got married, but Winston was devastated when his sister Rebecca – who married her first boyfriend – died from HIV.
“I try to turn tragedies into opportunities. Not necessarily to help myself, but to help others. So I went flat out. I went on television. You don’t see people in Zambia who are open about their HIV status – not one doctor, or teacher, nobody goes public. This stigma is reinforced by silence. The only way to fight this stigma is to come out.”
In 1997, Winston contracted TB but was determined to stick to his anti-retroviral treatment and the full course of TB drugs- taking them for over 8 months. By 1999, Winston was already taking anti-retroviral drug cocktails at the cost of US$1,500 per month.
He also worked as a National United Nations Volunteer to train others about HIV and development, peer counseling, book-keeping, project proposal writing, project management and communication skills.
But in February 2000, he succumbed to ‘false hopes’ that someone-somehow would just find a cure for HIV/AIDS. After eight months, Winston started getting fungal infections, his nails fell off, and abscesses developed everywhere. Ultimately he couldn’t walk – and he ended up in a wheelchair.
Winston has since restarted his medications, started a family of his own and expanded his awareness campaigns, now promoting new research for better TB drugs. As chairman of the Network of Zambian People Living with HIV/AIDS (NZP+), Winston was instrumental in ensuring members had good nutrition. NZP+ secured funding to distribute to its members food parcels with maize-meal, sugar, groundnuts and beans. In order to prolong lives, NZP+ authored a book on food for people living with HIV, underlining the need for the prescription of healthy foods in clinical self-restoration.
Winston has been living with HIV for 16 years now, thanks to his strong belief that knowledge is power. By knowing his status early enough, he cultivated a positive mental attitude, turned hopelessness into hope, and has managed to live positively with HIV for such a long time. In fact, Winston has beaten the normal ‘HIV course of infection’ graph which paints a picture of death after ten years of living with HIV.
A striking moral persuasion in this story is that of discrimination facing African students who test positive and are denied student visas to study overseas. This practice must be outlawed forthwith because it undermines the very basis of human co-existence in this global village. If Winston was allowed to proceed for his four-year degree course, he would have been working in his preferred profession despite being HIV-positive. It is not a waste of resources to train an HIV-positive person. Ironically, African governments do not demand HIV test results for Asians, Europeans and Americans that come to study in or immigrate to Africa.
Here, we learn that Winston is a strong believer in good nutrition as a strong foundation to fight opportunistic infections. Combined with ARVs, that is why Winston has managed to survive the twin epidemics of TB and HIV/AIDS. We also learn that myths of witchcraft and traditions like polygamy must be re-examined within the context of HIV.
Since 1990, Winston has helped others to help themselves. But there have been downtimes when helplessness sets in. The challenge is to discover how to rise from the ashes.
A Ugandan, Philly Bongoley Lutaya sung: “take the message, across the frontiers; break the barriers, we will fight together; the doors are open, we will lead the struggle; we don’t bow down in defeat, we will fight on”. Indeed, former President of Zambia Kenneth Kaunda’s song is “We shall fight and conquer AIDS”. Continue the fight. Life is not for the faint-hearted. Remember, what seems like a tragedy may be an opportunity.
l KC is a lecturer in the Department of Biology at the University of Namibia. Email: email@example.com