Written by Roseanna Anderson
Alice Pande is a twenty five year old mother of two living in the rural village of Mpamba, Northern Malawi. Her children, Zoe (who is almost two years old) and Joseph (four years old) joined her throughout our parenting session and the interview. Zoe slept and nestled in her chest or clutched at Alice’s breast for milk, while Joseph sat at his mother’s ankles, gazing up at her when she spoke. The young mother spoke with a relaxed confidence as she told her story...
Growing up in rural Malawi in what she described as a ‘poor family’, she has constantly struggled financially. 80% of Malawians live in rural areas and are often plummeted into difficult times when low rainfall destroys the crops they rely upon. Alice observed poverty and its repercussions all around her: women resorting to prostitution and parent’s inability to provide for their families being among the few worries. Alice chose marriage at the age of nineteen and she described to me how she saw this as sanctity from prostitution and HIV. Moreover, she had married ‘for love, not money’ and she and her husband are now struggling to provide basic education for their eldest son because of this, despite their relentless efforts.
While Alice leads a difficult life, she is among the community of HIV negative and talked about her conscious effort to avoid it. Before agreeing to marriage, her and her husband had walked together to the hospital for HIV testing. They only headed to the registry office when both of their statuses were revealed to be clear of HIV. In a country where approximately 10% of the population are HIV positive (according to a 2014 UNAIDS study) this course of action is understandable.
While Alice was not directly affected by the tragedy of HIV, she had to confront it when her older sister revealed her status. A young woman herself, Mercy was initially plummeted into the encompassing fear that HIV commits on sufferers. Too afraid to talk, Mercy contained all of her anxiety within herself for weeks: she eventually began contemplating suicide. It was at this precipice that Mercy turned to her family for help. After revealing what must have felt like a confession with all the bravery she could summon, her family exiled her. They refused her a seat at the dinner table because of her status and fed into the discrimination. All of her fears had manifested in the ones she trusted the most. It was only Alice who showed her any sympathy.
She was at that time her only friend. Alice spent time cooking for her and acting as a councillor. Reassuring Mercy of the possibility of a healthy life, Alice enlightened her to regain the happiness she had once known. She directed her to professional councillors and doctors who treated Mercy with ARV drugs as well as aiding her mental health. Mercy is now living a fulfilling life again with her five children. Sadly, this is not the case for so many who experience stigma and discrimination, it can only be thanked that Mercy had at least one person to turn to.
Alice had been active in the sexual health and parenting workshops. These sessions had given her the understanding to confront HIV without trepidation. She had access to the services provided by YONECO in partnership with Progressio and was brave enough, in the midst of discrimination, to stand beside her sister. She chose information and understanding to abolish her own fears and preconceptions and is now catalysing this change in others. She tells me that after a parenting session in Mkumbira, she realised the need to be open with her children about sex and sexuality for their health and well-being. She wants to discuss HIV with them too. Her biggest fears, she says ‘is that they will not listen to her’ and put themselves at risk; she will do all she can to best educate her children. Observing the admiration they have for her, this fear will surely subside.
With Progressio developing in new locations such as in Nkhata Bay, where YONECO operates, there will an ever growing population of people fighting stigma- first internally and then in their communities. There will be more parents like Alice: free from prejudice and unafraid to lead the fight against HIV and AIDS. Malawi will thus grow ever more liberated from the social ailments of HIV/AIDS. Currently 15-19 year olds count for almost 40% of new infections (UNAIDS 2014) but with more youth being engaged in active conversations about HIV there is hope that Malawi will see this figure decrease.
Education and information must forefront social change leading to a more just nation. Malawi can hope to see its population better educated and better able to battle both the physical effects of HIV/AIDS and the stigma and discrimination too. Ameliorating the fear of discussing HIV/AIDS will result in a generation of youth better equipped to protect themselves from psychological effects such as depression due to HIV/AIDS but also from developing new infections. While there remains much farther as a country to travel towards a HIV free society, every individual feat is a great accomplishment and Alice’s story can spur hope and motivation for the remaining battle.