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

SWAZILAND: Hannie Dlamini: "You need to trust your loved ones"

Photo: James Hall/IRIN
I still earn my living as a builder - but I have to go and find out things.
Manzini, 19 May 2008 (PlusNews) - Hannie Thulasiwe Dlamini is approaching 40 years of age, a feat most people in Swaziland considered impossible when he became the first person in the country to publicly declare his HIV-positive status in 1995.

"By profession I am a builder. I graduated from school in 1990 and started working in 1991. I was sick, I couldn’t get better. I went to see a doctor and the doctor informed me I must do a test. He told me it was for HIV.

"I had heard about AIDS, but did not think this was my problem - nobody ever said they were HIV positive; it had never happened. The health ministry said there was AIDS in Swaziland, but where were the people with AIDS? In the hospital posters there were these thin people, but they were foreigners, they were not Swazis. Nobody knew anything about AIDS.

"I went to get the test because the doctor was pushing me to take it. It came back that I was positive for HIV. That was June 1991. I was quiet about my status for some time - I refused to believe I was HIV positive. I got married in 1992, and I was still quiet. I didn’t tell my fiancé.

"All this time there was a woman at The AIDS Support Centre in Manzini [Swaziland's commercial hub]. She was writing me letters all the time, asking me to come in for counselling. I refused, but she kept writing.

"Finally, in 1993 I went to see her. There was a meeting with other people who were HIV positive; there were eight of us. We formed a group called Swaziland AIDS Support Organisation (SASO). No one had done this; there was no place for HIV-positive people to turn for information and understanding.

"It was then I got the courage to tell my wife. I declared to her in 1994. There was such a stigma to HIV that her parents insisted she leave me and come home, but she refused. She told my in-laws that she loved me as I am.

"Because of SASO I was invited to a meeting in Cape Town. The UN was bringing together HIV-positive people, and I heard how important it was for a country to have its people declare their HIV status. I told the world, and I came back from Cape Town a changed person.

"SASO spread all over the country and gave birth to many organisations that do support work in Swaziland. I put my effort every day into SASO. But it was very hard; I was stigmatised by my family because of my status.

"Today it is still very hard for HIV-positive people, even those working for the health department don’t declare [their status] because of the stigma attached. We can see people who have a problem with HIV; they are not well. They may be educated, but still they don’t come out so it is hard to get them help.

"The way I see it, people like me and some other people need to come together and find a way to reach out to people. Because I am HIV-positive, I know what it means, and what people like me need. I can see faults in the health system, I visit the clinics. I am not paid to do this - I still earn my living as a builder - but I have to go and find out things.

"I find the clinics don’t have up-to-date information. What they know and tell people is insufficient. There are ways to take ARVs that are important, but these ways are not always known by the counsellors. They have general information, but people’s questions can be specific.

"My wife is a changed woman. To me, she is a different person from the woman I married - she is an AIDS activist. We work side by side. She is the founder of Manzini’s AIDS clinic; we work in offices close by. All of this is because she wanted to stand by her man.

"I think you need to trust your loved ones. People don’t get tested for HIV because they fear what others will say and do. But if you give your loved ones a chance, you will be surprised by their courage and their love for you."

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