Written by Amanda Hu (www.amandainbotswana.wordpress.com)
When I was given a tour of the Botswana-Baylor Children’s Clinical Centre of Excellence, I learned that most of the HIV-positive youth in the country acquired HIV through mother-to-child transmission, and a smaller percentage through rape; it was a very small minority of children who contracted HIV through their own chosen behaviors. Yet despite the fact that they had no choice in the matter, they must deal with the consequences. I wanted to share two people’s stories about acquiring their HIV-positive status, the first through mother-to-child transmission and the second through an incident of rape.
I talked to a young man from Mochudi, 17 years old, who told me the following when I asked him about some of the challenges he’d experienced in his life: “When my mother gave birth to me she passed away while I was still young and I don’t even know her face, or my father’s. In 2006 I got a disease and while I tested at the hospital they told me that I was positive for HIV, but because I was still young I didn’t know anything. While I was growing, I realized how I could maintain my health despite the fact that I had HIV, but the thing is I have to take the treatment everyday as the doctor recommended… Now, I am doing so. It took me time, but I have accepted the situation.” He believes he became HIV positive from his mother and also indirectly from his grandmother, who were both HIV positive. When he found out about his positive status he said, “I was ashamed,” but “because there are teen clubs I became involved and it helped me to be open to myself and know that it is not me alone who is suffering from HIV and it is not my fault. Nowadays I am also confident because of Stepping Stones.” Teen club is a support group run by Baylor specifically for HIV-positive youth in Botswana, and Stepping Stones International is an after-school program for OVCs in Mochudi.
Another person from Mochudi, an 18-year-old female, informed me that she was HIV positive as the result of a rape. Expanding upon the story, she told me the following: “I remember clearly that it was around examination time, and on one Sunday I went out with my friends to a liquor bar. At around midnight I sneaked out of the bar with the intention of dodging my friends so that I could go back home because I was supposed to go to school on Monday. I went through a passage and I saw a person following and calling me by my name. I hurried through the passage but he suddenly grabbed me and took a knife out of his pocket. He dragged me and pressed me against a nearby rock and commanded me not to make any noise or else he would kill me. He ripped off my clothes and raped me. I was bleeding all over the body. As if that was not enough, he dragged me and laid me beside the tarred road and left me lying there unconscious… only to find myself in the hospital after regaining consciousness. I was told that I was found by the police on patrol and they brought me to the hospital.” The man was arrested.
This is her description of the aftermath: “[Now] I feel that everything is okay, especially that my mother is treating me well; from the time I was admitted to the hospital my family gave me a lot of support throughout the whole process.
Immediately after the HIV diagnosis I underwent extensive psychosocial counseling at an organization called ‘Bakgatla bolokang matshelo.’ I was told to accept my status and I eventually joined teen club… As a member of teen club, I began to accept my HIV status because I realized that I was not alone and there are other young people my age who have the same problem as mine. My family accepted me and gave me some love.”
These testimonies certainly also speak to the value of support programs for vulnerable youth – despite their very trying circumstances, such programs can make a tremendous difference.
Where are these people now? The first person mentioned above wants to be a policeman “to help society to control crime and also advise my age mates.” He “takes other kids for counseling, and advises them to take the treatment and protect themselves and not mix treatment with alcohol,” and says he doesn’t want his peers or his future children “to suffer like I did.” As for the second, she enthusiastically intends to be a doctor (a general practitioner) working in Botswana and also says, “I personally think I can help change the mindset of young people towards HIV/AIDS through sharing my story and experience. I will also teach them about HIV prevention measures and not forgetting to encourage them to never give up too easily in life no matter the circumstances.” By channeling their hardship in a way that allows them to ameliorate the lives of others as well as provide experience for a more successful future, these young people are extraordinary examples for other youth who are also undergoing substantial adversity.