Candid Comment with Joram Nyathi
I NEVER thought I could spend an hour reading a diary, let alone a woman’s diary about Aids. But once the diary was thrust in my face (two of them) by the women who compiled it, I had no choice.
I went t
hrough it and I must confess that I enjoyed reading about a disease that has held the world in thrall for some 23 years now.
When presented in the news, Aids stories always reek of death and destruction and therefore tend to put me off. However, this was different.
Positive Days — A Woman’s Dairy is a diary-cum-calendar.
Its structure takes the form of a typical calendar, from March 2006 to February 2007.
This otherwise dry framework gets life from the testimonies of five HIV-positive women telling us how it all started and how they came to the confession table.
The diary is divided into 12 chapters ranging from general information on Aids, the selective Biblical interpretation of Aids sufferers, stress management, the Aids stigma, to opportunistic infections interspaced with the personal testimonies of women who have been HIV-positive for nearly 20 years and are still going strong.
Each month starts with either a personal testimony (and colourful pictures) or a short article raising fundamental issues about Aids.
The diary starts with a glossary of Aids-related terms before taking the reader through a journey of discovery and attempting to scorch the stigma associated with HIV infection.
The conventional picture of an Aids sufferer as a scrawny man curled up in a corner of an unplastered room waiting for the end is debunked.
The women in the diary are positive in both their status and about the future.
Those who conducted the interviews make it clear that the diary is for the living through their positive attitude.
Positive Days is most valuable for the free information it gives us on Aids.
But its greatest strength is the chapter on stigma, “the silent killer”. A pithy definition of stigma is given as “a mark of social disgrace”.
In Zimbabwe we still shun HIV-positive people.
They are seen as promiscuous and therefore getting a deserved punishment from God.
The result is that the infected person fears to disclose his condition because it exposes disgraceful behaviour.
In turn, by the time the condition is discovered the person has developed full-blown Aids and treatment is impossible while imminent death is assured.
The stigma associated with Aids explains the relative failure of the New Start Centre initiative and society’s hypocritical prudishness regarding sex and the use of condoms.
Everyone says it will never happen to me.
Positive Days shows that women invariably bear the burden of discovery and disclosure of their own sero-status and that of their husbands.
In almost all the cases women discover their status when they are pregnant and Aids testing is a must.
By then the husband is dead.
Because of the stigma it carries, Aids is not treated like any other disease; it is the ultimate mark of shame and therefore nobody wants to know.
Positive Days is a handy tool for both men and women in facing the challenges that the Aids scourge has laid at our doorstep — be that doorstep a home, a church, a workplace or the graveside.
It challenges our complacency by laying bare the reality we seek to pretend is only for mourners at a funeral wake or those with a sick relative or are living with Aids.
It questions the morality of the lopsided power relations between men and women which force the latter into risky sexual liaisons (prostitution) or unprotected sex in the home.
The dangers of mass displacements like Operation Murambatsvina for women and the girl child are implied if not mentioned.
The diary lays open the devastating social and economic impact of the disease and why we all need to be involved in different ways.
Positive Days is deceptively simplistic in its delivery.
It is explicitly directed at women yet men loom large in their absence, either through death or a refusal to be tested.
A woman on the other hand must eventually face the consequences of testing positive — the emotional changes from disbelief to angst and to final acceptance — even if she was a virgin when she married.
Initially she is ostracised by relatives from both sides.
They have to deal with the furtive mocking gestures of the immediate community regarding this family shame.
The language of Positive Days is simple, definitions are clear and topics are discussed in a vivid way without lapsing into jargon.
Expressions such as CD4 cell count and viral load are shorn of all mystery, showing how early detection of infection is crucial to successful treatment.
All the issues are handled with delicate sensitivity.
It is also a rare achievement that such a project is carried out without a hint of the victim-mentality which often mars such debates.
No man testifies in the whole diary, if a fault were to be pointed out, yet their cooperation is critical in the choices that women make.
But overall, Positive Days is a must read as an entry point into the world of those living with Aids and as an aid for those still negative and are squeamish about what it means to be HIV-positive.
It tells you all you need to know and what to do — whether you are positive or not.
There is no room for neutrality. One can only pray that it gets the widest distribution in rural areas. Rarely has so much been said in so few words about the deadly pandemic.
Positive Days — A Woman’s Diary is produced by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Harare.
Candid Comment with Joram Nyathi