One afternoon nearly three years ago, Masedi Thata Kewamodimo walked to the radio station near her university in Botswana and said she wanted to go public about being HIV positive. Now she is visiting Duquesne University through the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders.
Back home, she focuses on HIV advocacy and helping people cope with the daily challenges of the stigmatizing status by speaking on government-owned radio stations, which reach everyone in the country.
She stopped by 90.5 WESA to speak with reporter Virginia Alvino Young about her work and her personal story.
VIRGINIA ALVINO YOUNG: How did you first get involved with using the medium of radio in your advocacy work?
MASEDI THATA KEWAMODIMO: Because I was discriminated against, indirectly. People were talking about people living with HIV and AIDS in a harsh way, and I did not understand why. And I was tired. I was wondering how many people are going through what I’m going through right now. I was asking myself how many people are being discriminated against by their families, by their friends, because they are HIV positive. That is what pushed me. So from there, I am now working with a national radio station. It’s owned by the government of Botswana. I went to radio, because I believe that that’s where I had a bigger voice. I’m a tiny girl with a very, very tiny voice; I needed something that could amplify my voice. That’s when I went to radio, and people started becoming aware of it. Even though, in a way, some people did not know how to become friends with me anymore, because they did not want to be labeled as being friends with somebody that is HIV positive. I got to realize that what I was doing was bigger than me, and I had to push forward. And I realized that radio helps me to reach people that I could never reach if I was to use print media, because not everybody can afford to buy a newspaper, not everybody can afford to buy a magazine, but radio, everyone has the frequency to listen to a radio station.
ALVINO YOUNG: You made the personal decision to be public about your HIV positive status. What was your personal journey when you first found out that you were positive?
KEWAMODIMO: It was very, very difficult, because I had lost my parents to AIDS. And a few months before finding out I’m also HIV positive, I also lost an aunt to AIDS. I was 10 years old; it’s too much for a 10 year old to be told you are living with HIV. I was confused. I did not know what it meant, the only thing I knew it meant was that I was going to die. That’s what I heard on the streets. But I had to try and push through. But a few years later, I was tired of taking pills. You can imagine -- having to take pills twice a day at 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., it was too much for a 13 year old to even cope with. I started wanting to commit suicide. It wasn’t until I met a few of my friends who are living with HIV through a program that provides a support system for young people living with HIV and AIDS on a monthly basis, so that’s when I got to see it’s possible to live with HIV and I started gaining strength to actually go on.
But then when I got to university, I said I now wanted to date. That’s when I saw, no, people don’t really see HIV the way other people may see it. If I’m HIV positive, I’m not marriage material, I cannot accomplish anything. Those things pushed me to want to do better. Do I still face challenges? Yes. But I chose to take my status and say I’m HIV positive, how can I make my life a positivity in any way that I can?
ALVINO YOUNG: In your community, being HIV positive is quite prevalent, yet there are still a number of stigmas attached to that status. Can you describe further what those stigmas are and what you think is going to help improve that culturally?
KEWAMODIMO: What I think happened is that when HIV came into my country, the government tried everything they could to try and help people. So what they did was show people that it is a dangerous thing to be HIV positive. What happened is people still remember that it is dangerous. So even when you hear that someone has HIV, all you remember is that it’s dangerous to become HIV positive. So I think it is because the efforts that the government tried to make that has resulted in now us having a problem. And my government has tried really hard to ensure we have treatment, so we need to change now perceptions at an individual level -- that’s where we have a much bigger problem at. People don’t really discriminate directly, it’s indirect discrimination. For example, if I look skinny, people say, "Is she HIV positive?" So small things like that are what we see as the bigger thing happening in my country right now. And this results in people using and abusing alcohol, because they’re trying to cope with the conditions. Most of the time, the kids born with HIV, they’re in their 20s. So now they’re faced with having to cope, and that’s resulting in alcohol, which results in reinfections and now the disease has a chance of spreading even further.
ALVINO YOUNG: You’ve been in the United States on this visit for just a short time, but what is your impression of how the United States’ perspective of, opinion of, or understanding of the AIDS epidemic in Africa has changed?
KEWAMODIMO: Having been here, most people don’t really understand how it is in Africa...because most of the time people are shocked that I am HIV positive. I don’t know if they are expecting me to look in a different way. I admire my country for providing free treatment for people living with HIV, which I hear is not happening here. I hear that they’re trying to make it better. I applaud my country for taking initiative to really help people. But what I also learned here is they see psychosocial support as very, very key and very important, so seeing that, it made me realize that even though they aren’t providing free treatment, they’re also trying to help people live better lives as well.