Lessons from Tendai Westerhof
Tendai Westerhof went public about her HIV positive status in 2003. She was the famous wife of Clemens Westerhof, ex-coach of the Zimbabwe national football team. Before marrying Clemens, Tendai was unlucky in love, mothering three children from two men.
It all started when Clemens tested positive for HIV. At that time, Tendai was deep in denial, probably thinking HIV was no big deal for the upper echelons of society. Then one day, Tendai summoned enough courage to get tested. After she discovered she was HIV positive, Tendai was excommunicated by her family and friends. She was blamed by her husband as the source of the HIV infection.
Notwithstanding their love-hate relationship, Tendai was ‘raped’ by her husband and six week later, she was pregnant with Clemens’ child. Then life became a living hell for Tendai. She was verbally abused by her husband, who insisted she terminates the pregnancy. When Tendai refused to abort, Clemens reneged on the pregnancy and chased her away from home.
When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Determined to live positively, Tendai enrolled on the Prevention of Mother To Child Transmission (PMTCT) program. Six weeks before delivery, she was put on nevirapine treatment. Tendai gave birth to a healthy baby and found emotional support from her mother and the church.
Tendai said: “Life is what you make it. Being positive is not a big issue and one must not lose hope”. Indeed Tendai is a symbol of hope to many women living with HIV. Armed with a Diploma in modelling and grooming, Tendai founded the Public Personalities Against AIDS Trust (PPAAT), a non-governmental organization working to dismantle stigma and discrimination of people living with HIV/AIDS. She contends that people struggling against adverse conditions such as discrimination, oppression and poverty are the most vulnerable to HIV infection.
PPAAT encourages public personalities to go for Voluntary Counselling and Testing (VCT) and in May 2004, twelve Members of Parliament went for VCT. In 2005, Tendai was honoured with the Auxillia Chimusoro Award for her outstanding activism in the fight against HIV/AIDS. In 1989, Chimusoro was the first person in Zimbabwe to openly disclose that she was HIV positive. In her must-read book Unlucky In Love, Tendai chronicles her side of the story and shares her thoughts about how women in Southern Africa can cope with the realities of HIV/AIDS.
Can a husband rape his wife? Never mind. But this is a story about beauty, blame and divorce. In most of Africa, women are blamed and divorced for allegedly spreading the virus. Call it Beauty and the Beast? But HIV does not discriminate. It infects slim cat-walk models, as well as unsung plump homely wives.
From a high-profile coach’s wife, sitting in the VIP stand of the stadium and beaming on TV, Tendai has found new fame, in fact better fame, as an HIV/AIDS activist. Better fame because she has given face to the many invisible people silently living with HIV. With people like Tendai, HIV no longer has an ugly face. HIV is not just for the brothers and sisters in the slums of Mbare, Soweto and Babylon. Even the rich and famous are at risk of contracting HIV. Even priests can have HIV. HIV infects and affects everyone. We are all in this together!
That said, some professions and behaviours are at a higher risk of HIV infection. Risk assessors call it relative risk. Generally, commercial sex workers and people on the move, working away from their spouses, are at higher risk of HIV infection. It is difficult for husbands and wives to stay without sex when they are away from their usual partners for long periods of time.
Thus truck drivers, pilots, journalists, and migrant workers may be high-risk transmitters. Nurses and doctors may also be a high risk group due to the biohazards of their trade. In Zambia, the Health sector has lost more nurses and doctors to HIV than the brain-drain. This is not to stigmatise these categories of workers.
The national team soccer coach is a frequent flier. Away from his wife, he may present himself, God forbid, as the perfect victim for casual sex. Like players, the coach has a huge following of soccer fans that may raise the probability of extra-marital affairs and the risk of HIV infection. In fact, this is why most good African players have failed to break into the big football leagues of Europe where HIV testing may be mandatory.
Once HIV infection sets in, there is absolutely no need to play the blame game of ‘you brought it to me’. It takes two to tangle. There are some wives who are so mean to their husbands that the poor brother may find solace in extra-marital flings, exposing himself and the wife to the risk of HIV infection. There are also some husbands that neglect their wives to the point where the sister resorts to some Mandingo at the office or the garden boy. Of course, there are some Casanovas that think from beneath their belts, with insatiable appetites too hard to satisfy.
Point is, without pre-marital HIV testing, it is difficult to pinpoint which individual member within a co-habiting couple was infected first. It is difficult to estimate whether the risk of contracting HIV is higher for a model than for a coach, or vice versa.
HIV uses the enzyme reverse transcriptase to incorporate its own genetic material into host cells, which then allows it to reproduce freely. Nevirapine, one of a class of drugs known as non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors, prevents this enzyme from functioning. Thus nevirapine can be used for the prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV. It is effective when given alone as a single dose to the mother at the beginning of labour and one dose administered to the baby within 72 hours of birth. Nevirapine given to HIV-positive pregnant women rapidly crosses the placenta into the foetus with its effects lasting through the first week of life.
Since two-thirds of infants born with HIV are infected in the birth canal during labour, the timing of its delivery to the mother during labour is important. With increased efficacy of ARVs, and the new Hollywood philanthropy of adopting African kids, there may be no ethical justification for HIV-positive mothers to abort.
l KC is a lecturer in the Department of Biology at the University of Namibia. Email: email@example.com