HIV stigma: Grandparent suffers in silence

Zimbabwe has, over the last three decades, been severely affected by the HIV/Aids pandemic resulting in the prevalence of stigma.

The worst blow delivered by this epidemic has been the death of family members, often parents aged 20 to 45 years, resulting in the emergence of many orphans and some of whom are left to bear the burden of living with the dreaded HIV/Aids.

As a result, the care of orphaned children and those living with HIV/Aids in Zimbabwe is often undertaken by grandparents who bear the brunt of social, economic hardships and worse, stigma. But this is in some instances different for the innocent children born with HIV/Aids.

Imagine living with HIV/Aids for 13 years, taking anti-retroviral drugs daily and going every month for check-ups and you are not aware of your status. But the people living with you know your status. This is the ordeal 13-year-old Tariro (not her real name) is going through.

Tariro’s parents died of HIV/Aids when she was 18 months old and she was left under the care of her maternal grandparent, Gogo Makamba, 80, who lives at Pota Farm, 35km out of Harare along Bulawayo Road.

“My son and daughter in-law passed away in 2006, and I was looking after them on my own during the time they were sick,” Gogo says, as tears start flowing down her cheeks.

“It was a very difficult period for me, looking after them and their three children as well, particularly Tariro whom my son disclosed was also living with HIV and was always sick.

“I had restless nights as her health was deteriorating everyday and I was also worried about the future of the other children.

“I always prayed to God that at least if they could complete their education, they will find jobs and will be able to look after themselves,” narrated an emotional Gogo Makamba.

Besides providing for food, clothing and school fees, her biggest burden was that of taking care of Tario’s health.
Compounding her situation was the fact that she had no knowledge on HIV issues, including adherence, disclosure and even social support for people living with HIV. She had no choice but to take care of her grandchild.

“My son died first and his wife followed four months later. After the burial of my daughter in-law, the in-laws said they could not take another funeral to their home because they believed ailing Tariro would die any time. She had health difficulties and always had infections, intestinal illness, skin disease, etc.

“I took my granddaughter to Wilkins Hospital in Harare where they put her on ART combination therapy.
“The hospital changed her ART drugs several times until there were some visible positive changes on her health. Regardless of all this, she remained very frail and had no appetite. I kept on trying my best and always prayed to God for intervention.”

Despite the many challenges Gogo went through, her greatest fear is stigma and style of parenting which sometimes contrasts with that of younger foster carers. Old parenting methods have various detrimental social and health outcomes for today’s children.

For instance, Gogo is not comfortable talking to Tariro directly about sex, sexual development and HIV, more importantly her status. She is over-protective of her granddaughter in every sense.

“Now that my granddaughter is older and healthy, I am happy, we interact a lot and it’s a lot easier now than it was those years back when I spoon-fed her and always carried her on my back.

“She has just written her Grade Seven examinations and her aunt wants her to go to a boarding school for her secondary education.

“This is a good idea but my worry is if she goes to boarding school with such a condition, what will happen? Will she manage to adhere to her medication?

“How will other school children react to the news if they discover that she is living with HIV? This is eating me everyday as I am always thinking about it”.

Because of her worries, Gogo is reluctant to agree to full disclosure because she feels the child will not cope with the effects. Besides, she feels stigmatised and believes society will view her grandchild as an outcast.
“Telling the child that she is HIV positive, No, this is one of the most difficult times I am going through.  Moreso, how do I begin and how do I say it?

“Imagine if she asks me how she got it?  This is my greatest fear and this is the most difficult question that I always fear one day she will pose to me. This is bad as it brings in the issue of loose morality, sexuality and society’s disrespect for the entire family.”

Besides all the above, Gogo is also worried about what if Tariro decides to innocently share this information with other people in her community and then the whole family will be stigmatised. This situation undermines the quality of care for children living with HIV Aids.

Gogo is, however, happy that Tariro is healthy and is the one who is doing all the households chores.
“Look I am now old so Tariro is the one taking care of me because she fetches water and cooks the food that we eat.”
Despite her granddaughter living positively, Gogo’s problem is the inner conflict and fear of disclosure coupled with her advancing age that is affecting her and she feels she won’t be able to deal with it.

Zimbabwe — with 1,4 million people living with HIV Aids — has managed to reduce HIV prevalence rate, according to UNAids, from 22,1 percent in 2003 to 14,7 percent in 2015 and is working towards the achievement of the 90 90 90 target but the issue of stigmatisation especially for people affected persists and needs to be addressed.—Jawet Chiguvare