“Look at me now. I am healthy; I weigh 76kgs and really look youthful for my 50 years. Would you tell that I am HIV positive?” Asaph Sande asks me, with a grin on his face.
Indeed I would not guess that Asaph is HIV positive, and neither would you. Asaph is so full of life, and goes about his work with a smile on his face. Life is good and among the worries he goes to bed with, HIV is not one of them. His CD4 count is 709. He suffers no side effects, and he is still on the same line of treatment that he started on in 2002 – more than 13 years ago.
It is still a surreal experience for Asaph that he is alive now, especially when his mind flashes back to 2002.
“I was bed-ridden all the time, suffering from one illness to another. I had of course seen my relatives and friends die of AIDS, and honestly, the symptoms I had were quite familiar but I always blocked the idea that I could be HIV positive out of my mind. I should have been wiser,” Asaph recalls, with teary eyes.
“I grew weaker and weaker, thinner and thinner by the day that I could no longer support myself. All my clothes fitted me no more. The disease was gnawing at me with vengeance. I was surely dying that for my family and relatives it was a matter of when. I really had no choice but to take an HIV test.”
It was quite a huge step for Asaph to gather the courage to take the test.
“When I finally took the test, I was ready for anything. I remember that day vividly like it was yesterday. I weighed 22kgs only and my CD4 count was 22. I was put on treatment immediately. It is a miracle I am alive,” says Asaph.
At that time, Asaph needed a treatment supporter because he was too week to take care of himself. Six months later, he was stronger and encouraged his wife to take the test as well. She found out she too was HIV positive; but because she had seen her husband’s life restored so fast, she took the results positively. She instead opted for family planning so that they could take care of their three daughters properly.
“As a traditional man, it crossed my mind to try and get a boy but I dismissed the idea because I want the best for my children,” Asaph says.
In 2009, Asaph who was receiving his treatment at the MJAP supported ISS clinic at Mbarara University Regional Referral Hospital was enrolled by the organization to become part of the team of peer educators. He is now the Team Leader of the peer educators at Bwizibwera Health Centre IV in Mbarara district.
Being a peer educator has been empowering to Asaph and the people he interacts with. As a volunteer, he receives an allowance that has helped him take care of his family. His children also receive services for Orphans and Vulnerable Children at MJAP. As a peer educator, he has received training and is confident to speak about HIV/AIDS to his relatives, friends and even at his fellowship. Through this, he has helped reduce stigma and encouraged people in the surrounding communities to take an HIV test.
“Many of the things that worry me are the things that worry any other person – providing for my family needs particularly school fees for my children,” he says. “I no longer worry about my health,” he adds. In my work, I always endeavor to demonstrate to my peers that this is possible for them too.
Peer education interventionis used in preventing HIV and counselling those living with HIV by MJAP.Peer educators are trained to increase awareness, impart knowledge and encourage behavior change. The intervention has been successful in improving adherence to treatment, disclosure and use of prevention methods.
Asaph has come to learn that the biggest challenge people living with HIV face is stigma. Many people travel long distances so as to receive treatment from areas where they are not known. This becomes costly in terms of time and transport and they end up not adhering to treatment. Some believers in contemporary religion also believe that they can be prayed for and be HIV/AIDS free. Some have stopped taking their medication with the hope they’ve been healed through prayer.
As a peer educator, he has learnt that you need to listen to the people, give them time to talk. Self-stigma is affecting people living with HIV much more than stigma from those around them. He regrets that he only gets to speak to people who come to the hospital, yet there are many people out there who need such counselling but they never go to hospitals.
“Every day I go to work hoping to reach one more person. I long to see the day when there is no discrimination against people living with HIV. Where people freely come to the health centre and get treatment without fear of what other people will think of them.” Asaph says.
He has also discovered that some people fear to disclose to their spouses their HIV status and he always encourages them to do disclose. He says some people get to the extent of keeping their medicine at a relative’s place which makes adherence a problem in case the relative is not around. He sometimes supports people who have difficulty disclosing to their spouses by telling them to pretend they don’t know their status and come with their spouses to test.
A good leader leads by example, goes the old adage. For Asaph Sande, he is educating and empowering his peers and community by his example too. “I am a success story,” he delightedly says. “I never pass up the chance to share my life story, because every time I do, someone who is in a situation similar to my 2002 experience gets inspired and empowered not to give up hope.”
Story as told to Rachael Kentenyingi