In-depth: Love in the time of HIV/AIDS

ZIMBABWE: Until death us do part - love, marriage and the virus

Photo: Khomanani
Nomvula was not looking for a romantic relationship when she met Skhumbuzo
Bulawayo, 6 November 2006 (PlusNews) - When Nomvula Mnkandlha, 29, met Skhumbuzo Muvhinjeva, 39, at a support group meeting for HIV positive people, in Zimbabwe's second city, Bulawayo, she was not looking for a romantic relationship.

The soft-spoken, recently divorced young woman was still coming to grips with her ex-husband's rejection after she had told him she was living with the virus. Their two-year-old little girl had fallen ill and her mother had decided they should both be tested, but it took her another month to come to terms with her infection and find the courage to tell her husband.

He accepted her status on condition that she would not ask him to go for an HIV test, but a month later he sent her and her daughter back to her parents' home and began divorce proceedings, claiming that his wife would also bewitch and infect him. "I felt angry and betrayed," she recalled.

Nomvula then began attending the support group to which Skhumbuzo belonged. When the two met in 2003, his CD4 count (immune cell count) was dropping drastically and Nomvula offered him support while he slowly rebuilt his strength. "He treated me like a younger sister ... and we enjoyed each other's company," she said.

In a low gentle voice, Skhumbuzo admitted to having had multiple sexual partners during his marriage, but it had taken the death of his wife for him to realise the effect of his behaviour. Two years earlier, after three positive HIV tests, he was still living in denial and only started mentally preparing for what he believed was his imminent death, and what life would be like for his three orphaned children, after the fourth positive test.

Skhumbuzo, a security company banking and wage packager, joined a support group, where "I realised I was not alone ... I could live positively."

Despite Nomvula's initial reluctance their friendship strengthened and developed into a deeper relationship. "He said he needed a mother for his children and a partner for life," she told IRIN/PlusNews with a shy smile. In June 2005, she and her daughter moved in with Skhumbuzo and his children.

Their home is a neat yellow and chocolate-coloured house in Nkulumane, a high-density suburb of Bulawayo, where large AIDS awareness posters hang on the walls of the small sitting room. Skhumbuzo revealed his HIV status to his managers and sometimes teaches colleagues about HIV/AIDS. The lovers are living openly with their status. "This is not a secret, Nomvula said. "Why should we hide what we are?"

But the couple still battle with stigma and discriminatory attitudes. According to Skhumbuzo, his family is waiting for him to die. "They are counting the months and days." Nomvula's family still doesn't believe she has the virus, as she has yet to show a single symptom of illness.

"People still don't understand this disease," said Duduzile Moyo, a National AIDS Council (NAC) ward secretary. "They think it's a death sentence, but there is still so much hope."

Skhumbuzo began receiving free antiretroviral (ARV) drugs at a state hospital in October 2004, and Nomvula became his treatment supporter. "This is important, because I can forget to take my pills and she monitors and reminds me," he said, patting her hand affectionately.

Nomvula is not taking ARVs yet, since her CD4 count is 450 - ARV treatment is recommended for patients with a CD4 count of 200 or less - but she takes a daily dose of cotrimoxazole, an antibiotic drug that helps keep opportunistic infections at bay. The couple also practice safe sex, which remains an important precaution when both partners are HIV positive to avoid potential infection with an ARV-resistant strain of the virus.

They will be travelling to each other's rural homes to finalise the traditional marriage procedures with their families later this year.

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