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The following post is courtesy of one of our Teen Club members and Teen Leaders for Gaborone Teen Club. His name and those of his family members have been changed to protect his confidentiality:
BY THATO CHRIS RAMOTSWE JR.
I was born 17 years ago as Thato Chris Ramotswe Jr. To be more specific with the date, it was 8th November 1992, on a Friday. I was born in a village in the north of Botswana called Maun. I’m the only child of the late Thabo Chris Ramotswe Sr. and Caroline Vivian Ramotswe. I spent most of my life with my father because my mum passed away during March of 1996. She died when I was only 3 years and some months old. My mother worked at Standard Chartered Bank and my father was a soldier, Lieutenant Ramotswe. I stayed with my dad and his parents after my mother died until my dad died too.
Life with my grandparents was one I wish that I could forget. I had to live with them because my father usually had to go to military camps, which forced me to live with his parents. I can recall the times I saw my father when he bought me toys and all sorts of kids stuff. I’d only see him when he was dropping them off, and then he’d leave again. He did love me- I was his son, his blood, his heir. We lived in Maun before moving to Francistown. My grandparents didn’t treat me well; they abused me. My mother’s sisters would visit and bring me some things, and immediately after they left my grandmother would throw them away saying, “Don’t they think we can take care of him?” The year 2000 came when, sadly, I lost my father. Although I was only 7 years old, I thought my life was over. My mother’s family couldn’t live to see me suffer so, after my father’s funeral they took me in. Both of my parents were buried in Maun. I recall that day when I cried and cried, seeing the coffin lowered down into the ground, military guns shooting non-stop. My mother’s sister took me to my mother’s grave to see it, and I cried even more. My mother’s sisters couldn’t stand to see me being neglected by my grandparents; I was even wearing torn-up clothes during my father’s funeral.
That was when Selina Seitshwaro, my mother’s sister, filed to adopt me. She was given full custody of me, and that was the last time my dad’s family saw me. In 2000 I did Standard 2 (2nd grade) at Ikuke Primary School and managed to pass although I had only attended since July. I did my Standard 3 (3rd grade) there and still passed. In 2002, my aunt (who I now called “mother”) wanted a brighter future for me and put me in a private English-medium school. I wrote the entrance examination for Galimo School and passed. I was at Galimo English Medium School from 2002 till 2009 when I wrote my IGCSE (college entrance) exams. I am now applying for University studies.
The whole time I lived with my new mother, Selina, are memories never to be forgotten. She cared for me, gave me as much love as she gave her own two sons, gave me everything I wanted, and looked after me. There were rough patches between me and my cousins but we always managed to overcome them. The problems were mainly due to the love their mother gave me; they didn’t understand the fact that I had never had that motherly love before, and that’s all that my aunt/mother was trying to give and show.
ABOUT MY STATUS
The years 2000 to 2003 were great years, but then came the year I will never forget, 2004. It was during this year that I got really sick, so sick that it worried my mother. She didn’t know what was wrong; doctors said it was flu, some said it was just fever. My mother didn’t want to stop there because it got really serious. She took me to a private doctor named Dr. Kennedy, in Kanye. During my first exam, I told him about the diarrhoea, the fever, and the weight loss. He suggested that I take an HIV test. That shocked and frightened me a lot; I was afraid to hear that I might have HIV because I thought of it as the worst disease that ever existed. My teachers at school said it was a death sentence.
I started telling the doctor that I had never had sex or shared needles with anyone. Nevertheless, I took the test and was told to come back after one week. During the rest of that week, I couldn’t focus at school because all I could think about were my test results. Then the Friday came when I was supposed to get my test results. My mum and I went to the doctor and sat down as we waited for the results. Our turn came to see the doctor. Something gave me the creeps when I entered the exam room so I changed my direction. I first went to the toilet. Eventually I had to go back in, so I did. The doctor started by saying, “Chris, your test results have come, and I’ve been talking to your mother about them. You are not alone in this; there are a lot of people in Botswana who are in your situation so please don’t think that you’re alone. I’m sorry but your results have come back positive for HIV.” The next voice to speak was my mother’s when she said, “O seka wa tshwenyega ngwanaka, o na le nna. Ke tlile gogo tlhokomela (Don’t worry my son, I’m here with you. I’m going to take good care of you)”. I was just 12 years old; how could I have possibly got HIV? I had never had sex. The doctor referred us to the Botswana-Baylor Children’s Clinic in Gaborone. We went for our first check-up, and I was so shocked to see a whole lot of children who were HIV-positive like me. I saw the nurse and doctor and started the treatment known as Antiretroviral medications (ARVs). I had to come for a check-up every month. I would usually do the same thing: physical tests, see the nurse, see the doctor and wrap it up by seeing the pharmacist for pill refills. This same procedure has been happening ever since. I had a favourite doctor and nurses at Baylor: Doctor Elizabeth Lowenthal and nurses Tshume and Pandor. Then there was one whom I always talked to about my life and who always assisted me when I needed help, the Nurse in Charge, Mma Mathuba. She has been with me since I started up until now, along with the other nurses. Along the way, there have been others who have helped me during this period of my life: Dr Paul, Dr Jeff, the psychiatrist Lindsay Spencer-Mullan, and the understanding social worker Bakani Johnson.
I live a normal life now, one in which I know I’m not the only child living with HIV all thanks to the above-mentioned people. But above all else, there is one special person who has been with me through this whole journey, one who gives me her love, her kindness, her shelter, her property and all that I ever needed, none other than my second mother, Selina Seitshwaro.
In September 2008, my mother Selina Seitshwaro started to get sick. I thought it was nothing major until she started to have trouble getting around. I remember that in October of the same year, I found her sleeping when I got home from school, and that worried me a lot. She usually slept when she knew that all her children were back from school and that they were indoors, so I knew something was really wrong. I purposely woke her up and asked her if she was okay. She told me, “Thato, ke a lwala ngwanaka (I’m sick, my child).” My aunts were informed, and she was taken to live in Gaborone with her sister. She was bound to a wheelchair soon thereafter. She recovered a bit, though she could not do things as before. Then she went to Princess Marina Hospital on 5th January 2010 for her normal check-up. When she returned home, her condition worsened and a few hours later that day she passed away. The woman who had been with me for close to 9 years, the shoulder I cried on, the shield of my life, the person I depended on, had passed away. She was laid to rest on 9th January 2010 in Gaborone. Rest in peace Mum.
I believe that everything happens for a reason and that God has plans in everything that happens to us. All we ought to do is to move on, accept life, and the circumstances around us. God answers our prayers, and I have faith that a miracle will happen in my life one day. I’ve accepted myself as an HIV-positive young man, that I’ve lost my father and two mothers, but here I am, still living a normal life. I’ve had challenges in life, but I’ve managed to overcome them. All this has been possible because of the positive attitude I have towards life.
There I was; I had someone who took care of me, but she died. But it doesn’t mean my life has to end because she’s not there for me, No! I get encouragement from my aunts now. They love me, they take care of me, and they provide me with everything I need. I believe that wherever my father and mothers are, they love me and they are looking after me. Let’s accept ourselves and live a normal, healthy, happy life. Don’t think of what happened, asking “How?” and “Why?”. You will never get answers, and we cannot always change the circumstances around us! We should surrender all to God and move on with life.
TEEN CLUB & CAMP HOPE!
The year 2004 eventually passed and then came the year 2005 when, in May, a lady who worked at Baylor started what is now called Teen Club. Teen Club is a peer support group for HIV-positive adolescents who are treated at the Baylor Clinic. This club started with only four members: Me, Gomolemo, Toka, and Thebe. We usually met twice a week and, during our meetings, we would paint, draw and just enjoy ourselves. For me, Teen club is my second home because those of us in the club understand each other, know each other, and are proud of ourselves. Not everyone knows their HIV status, and there are those who just refuse to get tested because they are afraid of what will happened if they test positive, but it is not a crime to be HIV-positive; it does not mean you’re excluded from the love of God. The number of our Teen Club members kept increasing each year. We also started holding a camp called Camp Hope, for children at the clinic ages 9 to 12. This camp takes place at Maru-a-Pula School and is 5 days long. The camp is for those who have trouble taking their medication, so all the kids take their meds at the same time during breakfast and dinner, and everyone sees how easy it is to just take their pills and swallow them with water. Activities during the camp include sports, a session on food and nutrition, a trip to Mokolodi, arts and crafts (making dolls), playing board games, and on the second to last day we have the Camp Hope Olympics. Last year, during Camp Hope 2009, was the first time they had teen counsellors, including me, at the camp. The campers had a chance to learn from the teen counsellors about how to live positively and how to keep fit. It was amazing for me to hear the younger kids saying they didn’t think us teen counsellors were HIV-positive; they thought that, because we looked big, fit and healthy, we weren’t positive.
After the 13 year-olds graduate from Camp Hope, they go on to Teen Club. Teen Club is a place where an HIV-positive teenager can just be him or herself. Our members range in age from 13 to 19. Teen Club is also a place of learning and fun as the activities are both educational and recreational. Gaborone Teen Club, our club in Botswana’s capitol city, has grown from me and the other original 3 members to an average attendance of over 150 every month. We’ve even had to divide the club into two: the younger group (13- 15year olds) and the older group (16-19 year olds). With 10 Teen Leaders to help lead the activities, of which I am one, everything goes smoothly. Each month, one group will stay at the clinic to do an educational life skills activity, and the other group will go on a field trip to do something recreational. Some of our life skills sessions have included “Love, Sex and Dating,” “Adherence,” and “Disclosure.” We’ve also developed a session with Barclays Bank of Botswana called “Financial Literacy.” During this session we teach the teens how to budget, save, and manage their money. Recreational activities include going swimming at Maru-a-Pula School, visiting the museum, and playing sports at the Gaborone Senior Secondary School. The other Teen Leaders and I have been fully trained on Communication Styles, Coaching Skills, Team Work, and everything you can think of to make us good leaders, which all contributes to how well we run Teen Club. That’s why we even have the belief that we can do the work without the help of adults. I remember one Teen Club event we had where there were less than 10 adult volunteers. We showed everyone that we could run everything ourselves, and the day just went on as usual. Normally, we have about 20-25 adult volunteers. All the planning, buying of food, and organizing of venues for the events wouldn’t be possible without the help of our Teen Club elders, those adult volunteers whom we call our parents at Teen Club. I want to thank the Coordinator of Teen Club, Edward “Kago” Pettitt, the Satellite Sites Development Officer, Ntobeledzi “B2” Boitumelo, the hardworking Project Assistants, Agatha Offorjebe, Pavlo Bereas and Lorena Tolle, and obviously the other Teen Leaders, some of whom have been with Teen Club since the very beginning, back when there were only four of us. All of the aforementioned people help make Teen Club happen every month, but none of this would be possible without the teen members and Baylor patients themselves. I can’t even begin to start telling you how Teen Club has helped me, but you can see how far I’ve gone in life, and it’s all because of this wonderful club.
There was a time I thought I’d never say this, but being HIV-positive has had its blessings. No one knows how their life is going to end up or what will define the short time they have here on Earth, but for me it has been being HIV-positive. Maybe I wouldn’t have developed my optimistic perspective on life if I had been HIV-negative and had never gone to Baylor Clinic or Teen Club; maybe I would have ended up a thief or a drunkard. Now I live a cautious life, one in which I look after myself well, eat well, take my meds every day on time, a life in which I have accepted who I am. I’m positive and proud to be me. I know I’m making my parents proud; the life I’m living is the one they would have wanted if they were still alive and I know that even though they are not here with me, they are proud, they love me, and they are looking after me. It’s God’s will how things turn out to be, so let’s accept that and then our lives will be how we want them to be.