Fighting HIV with courage and dignity

5.12.12

Florence Mbidzo. © WCC/Susan Parry

By Dr Susan Parry (*)

 

Always smiling, positive and finding something to be thankful for, radiating with compassion, empathy and hope. This is Florence Mbidzo. While she has lived with HIV for twenty-four years, she has used her experiences only to inspire an end to the HIV pandemic.

 

Mbidzo from Zimbabwe has been a resource person for the World Council of Churches project’s Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Africa (EHAIA) workshops.

 

In 1988, when Mbidzo was pregnant with her third child, her husband took an HIV test, a pre-requisite for an insurance policy for a bank loan. On discovering he was HIV positive, he took his life.

 

Devastated by this event and stripped of all their assets by her in-laws, Mbidzo found herself alone, afraid and HIV positive. She noted an advert in the local newspaper which read:  “Are you HIV positive and feeling alone? We need to talk.” She phoned the number and thus met the late Lynde Francis in her home-cum-HIV centre.

 

At the centre, Mbidzo found the courage to accept herself, her HIV positive status and basic skills in positive living. Lynde cautioned her that she needed anti-retroviral therapy to protect her unborn baby, that a caesarian section was preferable and that she should not breast feed her child.

 

There was little support available in those days and it would be a further ten years before such treatment would be readily accessed in Zimbabwe. Sent from well-wishers in the United States, Mbidzo took the Nevirapine medicine made available at the centre.

 

Today her child is 23 years old and HIV free.

 

Mbidzo trained as a counsellor and offered her services to the centre, helping other HIV positive people from all walks of life to understand their condition. She helped them to live positively, eat healthily and avoid further exposure to the HIV virus.

 

In 2001, Mbidzo developed cryptococcal meningitis, tuberculosis and herpes zoster. Her CD4 blood cells were reduced to a very low number. She was looking into the face of death.

 

A journalist from Finland, who previously met her on a visit to the centre, in trying to save Mbidzo, sent her life-saving drugs each month.

 

Two years later, Mbidzo was finally able to resume active life. She continued to receive this medication from abroad until it became locally available – owing her life to a compassionate stranger.

 

With her growing children, she shared information about her HIV status to counteract any negative misunderstandings they might have. She says this deepened her relationship with her children, who eventually became her pillars of strength.


Initiating dialogue on HIV in a church

 

Mbidzo openly shared the news of her status with other widows in her church. She encouraged them to be tested and accompanied them in support groups. Along the way, she encountered church leaders with both positive and negative stances.

 

Some crushed all her HIV related activities, named and shamed those living with HIV adding to their stigma, eventually pushing away those in need of care and support.

 

Other enlightened pastors created safe spaces in the church, encouraged the support groups and helped Mbidzo and her team’s endeavors.

 

In 2005, when the Zimbabwean government bulldozed the homes of some 700,000 poor people to eliminate informal settlements, pushing people back into rural settings, Mbidzo’s home, so lovingly and painstakingly constructed, was also demolished.

 

Managing to find a single room to rent, Mbidzo took in homeless widows and HIV positive people she had counselled. She fought hard to access medications for them and shared her meager resources.

 

Mbidzo now lives in a small three-roomed house, which is home to her own family, several orphans and HIV positive children, all of whom she has on medication and are receiving education. She sells vegetables and runs a tiny corner tuck-shop which doubles as a counselling corner for the disadvantaged and HIV positive.

 

“I have met so many good people along the way,” says Mbidzo with a smile. “What makes a person feel better is the love received from other people. When you are not stigmatized but loved for the person you are, this instills a new confidence in you. I have felt the hand of God in my life and God has shown me compassion through his people.”

 

Mbidzo feels that people all over the world are still being infected with HIV and the stigma is huge. She says that “HIV may be a disease but the church must reach out to the people threatened by HIV. The church becomes the hand of God that brings love to the wounded, the hurting, stigmatized and isolated. Without love, we are as good as dead.”

 

[763 words]

 

(*) Dr Susan Parry is EHAIA’s regional coordinator for Southern Africa.

 

Read also:

 

Ecumenical response to HIV and sexual violence in Angola (WCC feature article of 25 September 2012)

 

Reducing the threat of HIV remains a challenge (WCC feature article of 4 July 2012)

 

Addressing the HIV pandemic in South Sudan (WCC feature article of 1 June 2012)

 

More information on Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Africa