“Morning..” My WhatsApp beeped It was my friend Melissa (She said we use Melissa), some minutes past 6.00 A.M, Thursday 25th.
“Hey, tsup?” I replied.
“Have to meet you today…”
“Melissa, I have a burial to attend, not sure if I can manage.” (I still don’t know why she choose Melissa)
Melissa typing…. Melissa Typing…
“Tell me when you are done, we can do 6.00.”
“Let me see, but am not promising, where do we meet”
“The only place I have mocha”
“Deal. Wait, you are buying”
“No, you are.”
That’s how I ended up rushing my Thursday. We have been friends with Melissa for the past 6 years, a lady so full of life, and on the forefront of matters HIV/AIDs and anti-stigma. In my search for a story, I had bugged her till she almost blocked my line, demanding for a story from her, and here she was, so early in the day asking for a meet. I knew it had to happen, I had to meet her, in the hope that she had someone willing for an interview. Let’s change the tense.
At around 5.50 P.M, I head up the short staircase into the restaurant, check into the boys’ (sorry, men’s room), and tend to nature, after which I settle on a quiet table for three, at a balcony overlooking the almost empty parking lot. I get my phone and text Melissa.
‘Here already…’ I throw her a WhatsApp.
She is online, it turns blue… A minute passes… She replies with ‘2 minutes’ and an emoji of a motorbike, so I wait. 8 minutes later, my thoughts are distracted by a bike’s tires eat into the gravel at the parking lot. I look down, and she is there, parking between a VW beetle and some delivery bikes. Her bike has a small carrier at the back for her delivery business, and she slowly pulls off her helmet, then the reflector jacket. (I promise to ask her when bikers ever clean those heavy jackets, or whether they have many similar ones). She then Chains the bike to a nearby post, notices my big eyes and waves. A tall girl of average build, she was seemingly made for the bike with the tall legs. She makes her way to our table smiling, and I notice a new line cutting through one side of her short hair. She wears a red tee, with a U=U graphic. She later informs me its “Undetectable = UN-transferable”, a campaign by a friend of hers called Bruce in the US.
She sits down in a slump and places the helmet on the table. (Why do bikers have to walk everywhere with the helmet? Okay, it’s yours, but why everywhere?) She places it on the table and says a tired hi. She seems a little nervous, which is so unlike her live life attitude. The waitress comes along, smiling at Melissa, they are good friends. She orders for café mocha, and I request for just coffee.
We catch up with some easy talk, lamenting how work has been slow, and something about my sad day, then suddenly she looks into my eyes. I sit up.
“There is something I really need to show you…” She says.
“Show me,” I say, rubbing my hands together.
She reaches into her pocket, and pulls out her phone, connects to the restaurant wi-fi and rummages through YouTube.
“You have headphones?” She asks, very serious. I nod as I place them on the table in front of us, and she plugs it in and turns the screen my way, holding the earpiece in her left arm for me. It’s a video by Jenifer Vaughan, a friend of hers from the States, who is Positive and running a huge awareness campaign over there. I get momentarily excited, guessing my friend wants me to do an interview with Jenifer (I know you are reading this Jeni, we will sure do a Skype… ha-ha). I decide to calm my te-te and focus on the video.
At first, it’s the same old same old… Until she says “Meet my friend Melissa from Kenya…” And a photo of Melissa emerges. I look at Melissa, she is smiling back.
“Go on…” she urges.
“Melissa recently found out she is HIV Positive ………………” Okay, that’s what happens, I don’t hear any more of Jenifer, I absentmindedly put the YouTube video on full screen and rotate the screen, shift on my chair and just look into the screen, not hearing the earphones.
I pull them off and carefully place everything in front of me.
The waitress sways to the table and places our cups in front of us, folds the bill in a leather holder at the middle of the table, and pushes it slightly to my side.
“Here is your mocha, and you… just coffee and the bill.” She jokes. We ignore her and she walks away with an awkward look on the face. I feel some pity for the poor waitress.
“Wait, Melissa, are you for real…?” It’s all I can ask.
“Ooh yes, it is.” She is smiling, genuinely, not those forced smiles an uncle gives when you are leaving for town and you left no tip behind. “Am for real. You have asked for a story from me for so long, it’s been bugging me and we had to have this talk today.”
“How long have you known this?”
“I got the result sometime in August of 2014…”
“Wait, 2014? That’s roughly four years, and we have been friends since 2010!” I cut her short. She sips on her mocha, and unlike our other meetups, the sweetened mocha doesn’t brighten her face a bit.
“It’s not just you, am not even sure how to tell it to my mum, I think it will wreck her.” She looks into my eyes, and I can see the strong lady I’ve known for years fading. She tries hiding it, but it’s futile. “My sister is my life, and I don’t know how to disclose it, similar to my friends. Now, you wanted a story, let’s roll!”
She smiles, I hug myself and smile back. Am confused, very confused, and my wits are leaving, my brain leaves for Timbuktu and I just sit there like a Zombie. I don’t know how to go about it, at least I should have been prepared for this, maybe she would have sneaked in something in the chat, at least I would have consulted my team on what to ask. My hands are now sweaty, and I hide them in my pant pockets.
“Look, I don’t know where to start Melissa, just talk to me, like, what happened and where it all started.”
“This guy I was seeing some time in 2014, and on this day, he invited me for some drinks, and I went. We had drinks till late, very late I wouldn’t make back home. I requested him to buy some condoms if we were to go to his place, but the silly him didn’t buy.”
She had requested that he rents her a room for the night in a bid to avoid going home with him but he turned it down and insisted on going to his place. When they reached home, he had no condoms and then, yes. Someday in August, she had gone to visit her former classmate who works in a VCT and as usual, the crazy part of her had requested for a test and that is when she found out she had the Virus. I imagine how it might have gone down.
The friend might have shrugged, against the idea.
‘Melissa, you always take these tests, someday you will find what you have been looking for..’ He had asked.
She had insisted and won. She had then the blood test and they were joking,
‘what if there are two lines…?’ she had asked him giggling.
‘You will just take your meds and then go for some counseling…’ He had joked. Then she had been left to observe the result as he piled some boxes against a wall.
‘Hey dude, there are two lines!’ She had called out laughing. He had laughed back and gone on with his job.
‘Seriously dude, it’s a double line… come see’ She had insisted, with some seriousness. He had come over, see the result, his face had turned pale and he had taken a seat, capped his face in trembling hands.
“So, how did he take it?” I ask.
“He told me that their kits were not so good, that they had just received a new consignment, and that I needed to go do the test elsewhere to be sure. My cousin had taken me to the hospital, I did and it was still defiantly double line. She was crushed, more than crushed, but she stood strong for me.”
“And how did you take it?”
“At first, I took it as a joke, but then I went into research, chewing on anything about HIV/AIDs, asking questions wherever I could. When I went for the final test, to be sure, I never took the counseling part, since I had done more than enough research by that time.”
“Tell me about the guy who infected you…”
“I told him about it and he was just so casual, told me that I only needed to take some pills and I will be fine. I hated him, with a deep passion, but after some time I decided to let go and just forgave him. It was eating me up, and the anger I had was not helping. Part of me still blames myself for being that careless, that i should have been more careful.”
“How did your body react to the virus?”
“Surprisingly, there was no single sign on me, and that’s one reason why i never believed it at first. My body was fine, but my soul was not. I went into an emotional breakdown, suicidal thoughts kept crawling back, then there was the part i had to convince myself that the pills would be a part of me till death. i had some deep self hate for letting my son down, and the first six months were the hardest battle I’ve ever fought, a battle i wouldn’t wish on an enemy. ” She says, more emotional than i have ever seen her.
“You must have had something that pushed you back to life …”
She unlocks her phone and shows me a photo of her son, a bubbly little ninja, and I notice a similar tiny line cutting through the young chap’s hair, similar to hers. He was the reason she held on, he needed her, and she made a vow to give him the best she could. Her cousin too, (the one who took her for the test) was always on her sight, holding her hand through it all.
“I hated the thought of my son one day saying he never went to the best schools because his mum could not afford it since she is HIV positive. I vowed to give him the best, as a vindication for self.”
“I’ve seen how active you are on matters stigma… have you faced any?”
“The reason I haven’t faced any serious stigma is that am still silent about all this, only a couple of people, really close friends who know my status. But now I think am ready for full disclosure. I know, it wont be easy.” She pauses momentarily and seems to reflect, and i let her take her time. There is a day I went to the gas station, I guess I had lost some weight and the attendant just said ‘You look so thin, are you positive?’ It was meant as a joke, but I rushed home and cried almost the whole of that evening. I don’t know how bad it will be when people learn of my condition but am ready for anything, I can’t live a lie anymore.”
“Can we say you have been faithful to the pill?”
“Of course, I have, every day at 9.00 pm. See this tee? Know what it means?” She says, pointing to the U=U. I look back and throw a blank. “I am at a stage called Undetectable, and in this stage, I can’t transmit the virus.”
“Wait, does it mean if you had a positive spouse they would be safe?” I ask quite confused.
“Yup, but you would have to keep it that way by eating healthy and taking your meds strictly. You should see me eat my friend!”
The center for disease control and Prevention (CDC) recently stated that “There is ‘Effectively No Risk’ of an HIV Positive person with an undetectable viral load (amount of HIV in the blood) sexually transmitting the virus to an HIV negative person. A big fist to the nuts of Stigma!
“You run a mentorship program, for young positive chaps, how is it?”
“I started doing it sometime early last year. I have a group of around 15 young HIV positive kids I mentor. On noticing that some of them were not taking their pills and their health getting worse, I wanted them to see someone who had accepted herself and was living positively and healthy. Trust me, since I talked to them, I ONLY HAVE TWO in the group who are not yet in the U=U bracket, and we are working to get them there. I also run a sanitation program for the girls in the support group, and am getting immense help from Jenifer Vaughan.”
I look at her and smile childishly, and she knows I have to be preparing to ask a twisted one, and I do… “In this duration, have you tried dating, now that you are in the U=U?”
“Well, stigma comes in. If am going to date someone, I will need to tell them about my condition. I have tried before, and trust me, people run, like crazy. So, at the moment am concentrating on the kids and this campaign. ” She says, smiling almost all through.
“How would you describe how World Aid’s day was carried out on a country level?”
“Wait, will you write about that?”
“Yes, I will… I need an opinion from you”
“Well, I attended my county’s chapter, and it was a kind of a cash cow for the organizers, with all due respect.” She says, “I think it’s not taken as seriously as it should.”
She takes a deep sip at her mocha, and i just look at my now cold cup of coffee. “What’s the deal with your riding? Or it’s just work?’
“I started it off just for my delivery work, but it has grown into me.” She looks below and admires her two wheeler, “when i ride, i feel liberated, the wind, the freedom, and the power to accelerate gives life a twisted sweet taste.”
I can see a huge retro clock’s hour hand lazily slash over an italics font curvy number ‘8’ behind her, and she complains about the time and her son waiting up. She has to leave.
“What can you tell my fans?”
“If you are positive, live positively, eat well, take your meds, it’s cliché yes but just do it. Many of us are doing it, and you can hardly tell. For the negative, they should really keep it negative, and shun the stigma. It’s not easy knowing you have to take a pill every day for the rest of your life. They should condomize or abstain, nobody ever died from abstaining, or have you ever read of any?” We both laugh.
“What do you wish to achieve in this campaign?”
“My mission is to hold and support HIV Positive kids and Teens and to guide them through a normal positive life. I want to spread the love they so miss and fight stigma with them, since trust me, they really face it. My other wish is to one day wake up in a world with 0 new infections.”
The waitress comes our way to clear the table, as we stand to leave, and this time we smile at her, and she smiles back, with Melissa eating a short girl talk with her, and they giggle like ten year olds.
“So, can I mention your name on the post…?” I ask as she puts on her helmet outside.
“No, please, just call me Melissa.”