No cure, but lots of hope

One woman in Mutare South Constituency has defied all the odds to survive HIV and AIDS with peace of mind and is teaching others to do the same. CLAYTON MSEKESA reports.

Headman John Matika
Headman John Matika

Cathrine Sithole, 43, is happier and more responsible than ever before, as she provides comfort, hope, and optimism to others who have also been diagnosed HIV positive.

In a recent interview with The Zimbabwean, after a tour of her organisation, Sithole confidently said she had no time for worry and no room in her mind for despair, but instead lives her life to the fullest.

“I am happier than many Zimbabweans, some of whom are even HIV negative. I have no time to grumble about financial or political problems and my status. I spend all my time caring, counselling and offering messages of hope to those who think that having HIV or AIDS is the end of the road,” she said.

Because there is no known cure for the disease yet, many people with the virus tend to have fatalistic attitudes due to psychological stress, stigmatisation and lack of confidence. Using her knowledge and experience as a nurse, Sithole founded the Mutare HIV and AIDS Support Organization (MASO) and the Zimunya HIV and AIDS Counselling Centre (ZIHACC) in 2010.

Her own money

Despite prevailing high levels of poverty in the district and the country as a whole, Sithole used her personal money and resources to initiate the development of this active voluntary counselling and testing centre in the rural district.

MASO now receives funding from several donor agencies and provides other services. It is registered by the Ministry of Health and Child Care and has connections with various local and international HIV and AIDS organisations.

She said the culture of silence surrounding the disease had inspired her to embark on a plan to assist others affected by HIV. “I wanted to remove the fear that people have concerning HIV and AIDS. Many people resist going for tests because of the culture of fear that has been created around the disease through sensational language, negative connotations, or the use of threatening metaphors,” Sithole explained.

“My aim is to mobilise voluntary community support and home-based care for scores of sick clients in marginalised communities,” she said.

Sithole worked for the Public Service for some 12 years before resigning in 2006 out of despair, frustration, and hopelessness when she learned that she was HIV positive. She said AIDS was compounded by a lack of access to counselling services.

Despair & frustration

“In the absence of a cure, the best remedy for coping with HIV and AIDS is to have access to effective counselling. Access to counselling enables individuals to become more responsible about their lives,” she said.

Her decision to reveal her status publicly and at a time when few Zimbabweans spoke openly about HIV and AIDS, it only worked to subject her to discrimination.

MASO has helped many in the Zimunya community and has offered employment to many in the community, including nurses, drivers, care givers and an administrator.

Ready to survive

Susan Mwatenga is one of the beneficiaries and doubles as a care giver. “When I was told that I was HIV positive, I became frustrated and afraid. I thought I was already dead and that was the end of my life. However, through effective counselling, I have gained hope and I am ready to survive,” she said. “I realised that I could still live well through a good diet, protected sex, positive thinking and regular exercise. I managed to hold myself up high, and regretted that I had subjected myself to emotional torture,” Mwatenga added.

Hamunyari Chikodzore is now a popular AIDS activist in Mutare district after attending counselling sessions at the centre that he says greatly changed his life.

“The advice I received on positive living, and the psychological power that I attained, won my victory over HIV. The counselling made me realize that negative thinking is ineffective when dealing with HIV infection,” he said.

Culture of silence

Gertrude Mwayengeni , the Ministry of Health community health advisor in the area, said the HIV and AIDS education offered by MASO had helped many people break the culture of silence.

“Such counselling also helps prolong the lives of those who are HIV positive. Mutare district has been a shining example of a community with a lot of people who have benefited from good counselling,” she said.

Local traditional leaders have also offered their support to Sithole’s initiative. Headman John Matika said others should emulate her shining example, as she had never condemned herself after being diagnosed as being HIV positive.

“Instead, she stood with her head high and spearheaded the fight against HIV and AIDS. Her works have been instrumental in promoting, co-ordinating, and representing People Living with HIV and AIDS support groups in our community. This is a good initiative that we will always support,” said Matika.

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