Well done Mr Splash for taking stigma head on

Geoffrey Kapusa, one of the most famous television personalities due to the Saturday evening music programme he hosted for a long time under the nom de plume of Mr Splash, has disclosed his HIV status. He, unfortunately, tested positive way back in 2006, and is taking life-prolonging drugs.

I have met Geoff only once, at an engagement ceremony, eight years ago or thereabouts. My memories of him are those of a wonderful guy who shared lots of jokes and made us laugh as we shared a drink. This week, Geoff has moved from ‘wonderful’ to ‘great.’

It is not easy to disclose the HIV status, especially when one tests positive, and here is why: the stigma is so painful that few people want to go through the process.

Kapusa: I know my status

When I was 18 years old, in 1994, I became ill. I coughed endlessly. My parents took me to many hospitals. I lost a lot of weight, and I must have looked almost like a walking skeleton. I remember in one incident when I had to cling to a tree as the wind blew, as I could feel it pushing me about.

At that time there was nowhere I went without people staring at me. Talk would die as I approached, only to resume, with high-pitched laughter, after I had passed. My mother, brothers and sisters were confronted directly at funeral ceremonies and other gatherings, sometimes taunted heartlessly: ‘Your son’s illness isn’t making any of us sad. It’s AIDS! He must have been reckless!’

Such reaction used to make my heart bleed, mostly as I had vowed never to have sex with anyone until marriage. I grew up a staunch Jehovah’s Witness who could not touch food, sleep or wake up without prayer. Sex outside marriage was, to me, anathema. To be accused of having contracted HIV due to recklessness was a big insult.

My uncle (elder brother to my father) one day, came and said: ‘I’m taking this boy to Madisi Hospital. I will not leave the hospital until doctors tell me the truth about him. Whatever it is that is terrorizing his wellbeing I want it treated once and for all.’

To Madisi Hospital we went, and, for the first time, I went through an HIV test. I tested negative, as expected. A Mr Golombe, who was then clinical officer, said: ‘I suspect tuberculosis.’ They tested and discovered that Golombe’s suspicion was accurate. Thus began my nightmare of staying in the hospital for 64 days, receiving, in the process, more than 60 injections, and taking no less than 13 tablets per day. I ate like I had never done before, and by the time we were discharged on a cloudy, dusty day of July, I felt normal again.

In our village there were some who used to tell my family that they expected me to return as a corpse, and were genuinely surprised to see me alive and healthy again.

When I write about stigma I do not write as one who has heard about it, or has read it in the news. I have been a direct victim of stigma. I have been ridiculed, and people have looked forward to my death.

Geoff’s disclosure brought tears to my eyes. He wants people to move on. He wants the nation to accept HIV as a reality amongst us, as something that can happen to anyone. Geoff wants us to accept that an HIV positive person could be anyone, including a famous TV personality like himself.

Two of my sisters in the remote corner of the country where I come from are HIV positive and have gone public about it. A cousin has also told us she is positive. Two nieces of mine suffer from AIDS. Their going public about it has made it possible for me to do the little I can to help them all, including sending them a little cash to meet some daily needs.

In my village, they don’t laugh at you anymore when you declare your status. Disclosure of status has helped everyone to accept this reality and to support those affected. Nobody is ostracized. We support each other and move on. What a difference from the 90s!

This AIDS is a battle we can win. We can only do so, however, if everyone takes steps as bold as Geoff’s. Disclosure of a medical condition is a private matter, and those that have not spoken about it publicly should by no means be vilified. It is their choice. But what we are saying here is that Geoff has made a far better choice by telling us he tested positive.

Magic Johnson, America’s basketball legend, went public about his positive status twenty years ago. He is still alive and well. Testing positive is not the end of the world.

Bhatupe Mhango, a former Miss Malawi contestant and a University of Malawi graduate, is now one of the strongest campaigners against HIV AIDS in Malawi. She has been public about her status for years. She is a friend of mine. The few times we meet she talks openly about her situation and the efforts she is making to help others. Bhatupe leads a normal life like all of us. She recently got married and settled with her Zambian husband in Switzerland.

A year ago, as I flew from Azerbaijan to somewhere in Europe, I shared a seat with Pricess Kasane Zulu, a very beautiful Zambian lady who engaged me on many interesting topics, from economics to aid to African politics. As we chatted she told me she is HIV positive and has been open about it for 15 years. She is married, has two children, and lives with her husband in Chicago, USA.

AIDS is not a death sentence. Be careful to avoid contracting HIV. But when you discover you are positive, handle it as maturely as Geoff has done. Only then shall we fight the pandemic successfully.

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