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Championing the fight against HIV/AIDS

…a Botha-Bothe woman narrates her 17 years of living with HIV

BILLY NTAOTE

Botha-Bothe – In the early 2000, to Basotho news that one had contacted the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) was like coming to the brink of staring death in the eyes resulting in being stigmatised and ultimately social exclusion and death.

But that was not the case for Teboho Kalikali, 47, who says she first discovered she was HIV Positive in 2001 at the age of 29 while hospitalised at Queen Elizabeth II with an acute eye sight problem.

Kalikali recounts doctors at the then country’s referral hospital changing hands with her in attempt to find her problem.

She says she was hospitalised is a ward with elderly women who had eyesight problems and she was the only youth in it.

Before she was to Queen II, Kalikali says she had often times taken her eye problem to the Botha-Bothe government hospital for treatment and was later referred to Maseru.

Kalikali says while at Queen II she continued to see her eye sight problem worsen and it was only when she inquired what was wrong with other patients who had been diagnosed with Sexually Transmitted Diseases like Herpes who were being made to test for HIV that she came to know more about the virus.

“Then when I tested, remember that then there was no counselling services offered in pre-testing and post-testing. Moreover the HIV-test results used to take three days to be delivered. But because I was still hospitalised over my eye problem, I had no problems waiting.

“I was given the results and they came out saying I am HIV positive. In fact all I knew was that I had AIDS and did not quite understand it all.

“From there, having a few relatives coming to visit me that included my sisters, I disclosed my status to them and one of them asked me to stay for some time with her when released from the hospital so that she could pamper me for some time,” says Kalikali as she recounts how family showed her love and support amid her HIV status.

Upon return to Botha-Bothe, Kalikali says her father, who then happened to be some sort of a herbalist and traditional healer told her he was going to make the HIV go away as though it was something to be magically cast-off from her body.

She says the only challenge then was lack of medicines for those found to have contacted HIV in the country and it worsened their plight.

But she says in December 2002, while going about her chores passing by one of the Agriculture Ministries departments that she saw an acquaintance from her home village among people at the event where food parcels were being issued.

She says when she struck a conversation with this acquaintance, she found someone who openly disclosed her HIV status to her and she was given hope and inspiration.

She says she made a deliberate choice to become a champion for HIV/AIDS awareness in her home district of Botha-Bothe and accept her status rather than dwell on how she could have contacted the virus.

She says she used to go to for counselling in Maseru at the institution that handled cases of counselling prior to the establishment of the National AIDS Commission.

Kalikali says it is the same vision for living a long life amid her being HIV positive that drove her and other like-minded people in her home district to establish a support group they named Re tla hlola meaning we shall overcome.

Kalikali says this was around the time when support groups were becoming popular and campaigns for behavioural change and support for those affected were becoming popular to curb the growing stigma against HIV/AIDS.

Kalikali says when her CD4 count was at 161 in 2004 she was at a state she needed to be on the Anti-Retroviral Treatment but she only started in 2005 when the ART was available in the country’s ten districts.

In April 2016, Lesotho became the first Sub-Saharan Africa country to implement the “Test and Treat” guidelines for HIV throughout the country. These guidelines were first issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2015. The guidelines remove all limitations on eligibility for antiretroviral therapy (ART) and recommend that anyone infected with HIV should begin ART as soon after diagnosis as possible.

Now unlike it was the case for Kalikali who had to wait for four (4) years to be placed on ART, the country with financial support from the U.S. government, through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), is working towards increasing its coverage of lifesaving antiretroviral treatment (ART) to 90 percent nationally among all age and sex bands.

Cumulative PEPFAR investment from 2014-2018 in Lesotho adapted from PEPFAR Fact sheets

“Since 2005, when I started my therapy I have taken my medication until today when I tell you that when making the check for viral load the machines shows that all the virus has been suppressed in my body.

“But what I’ve come to learn is that even though my viral load may have been suppressed it does not mean that I should cease to take my ART medication or that I am not HIV positive anymore. I have to continue to adhere to taking my medication and I will continue to live long like I’ve already lived for 17 years more than many thought,” says Kalikali.

She says she first started to have her viral load analysed using a machine in 2007 and today it is entirely suppressed.

Kalikali says her confidence to tackle head own any fears and misconceptions from those who knew nothing about HIV came from the acceptance and support her close family members and colleagues in the workplace gave her.

She says her superiors in Cabinet department she works since 2002 allowed her to attend any HIV/AIDS campaign or conferences and this contributed immensely towards teaching her more about HIV/AIDS while also living with the virus in her blood.

Today, Kalikali is a certified Peer Educators on HIV/AIDS and proudly says she does not want to see any Mosotho die unnecessarily.

 “My Policy is that we should extend our date of death to a later date through use of programs offered with the help of donors like PEPFAR,” says Kalikali but acknowledges that some people continue to dwell more on how they could have contacted the virus and blaming one another and end up losing the fight against HIV/AIDS.

She advises that people should accept their conditions and fight to live a healthy life and they would continue live long.

Kalikali says the first step is to start by knowing one’s HIV status by visiting any testing station.

 “It is very hard to fight something you do not know, so it is always wise for us to get tested and fight a disease that is known. One thing I’ve come to know is that HIV is very clever virus that easily adapts and one has to know it to fight it and win against it,” she says caressing her grandson.

She says she couldn’t have come to know her last born daughter’s son if she didn’t persevere and take head the challenges that came with being HIV positive.

She says since undertaking trainings on being a HIV/AIDS counsellor between 2004 and 2006 she has been working closely with to the Health Ministry.

She says in her early years while conducting trainings and speaking at public gatherings sometimes, she would be rebuked and accused of being a hired HIV/AIDS campaigner when she narrated her life journey as a HIV positive woman.

Kalikali says today, Lesotho is fortunate to be making positive strides towards archiving its 90/90/90 targets.

“We now have a high HIV/AIDS prevalence rate and that is a positive thing because many people are on medication,” She said.

But Kalikali, says the worst fear is failure to adhere to the ART due to false prophecies that HIV can be cured which she says are some of the falsehoods she has had to deal with among many of her peers who took the ART and later defaulted due to false prophecies.

“Adherence starts with learning more about the medicines and how they work in your body. The medication needs patients to adhere to their treatment without failure,” she said.

Kalikali says she is proud to have been among the founding members of the Lesotho Network of People with AIDS (LENEPWA). She is also a former chairperson of LENEPWA who serve on its board for two terms.

Asked how her discovery of her status affected her marriage, Kalikali says her husband remained secretive and never revealed his HIV status to her until he met his death in 2012.

 Kalikali says to her surprise, amid being openly engaged in the HIV/AIDS programs and being very vocal, she failed to recruit her husband to join her.

She says her husband was a migrant labourer working in the South African mines.

“He never stopped me from going on about my HIV/AIDS campaigns but he simply would not go test for HIV and he did not disclose his status to me until he died,” said Kalikali.

She suspects her husband could have known his status but remained secretive and he never had conversations about HIV/AIDS.

In 2008, Kalikali says she made a shocking discovery that she had cervical cancer.

This, Kalikali said was one life threatening experience she encountered in her 17 years living with HIV, she says the discovery was life threatening as she ended having to undergo surgery to have her uterus removed.

“Today I teach about HIV/AIDS and cancer. But I can only say it was mere luck that I survived cancer while HIV positive because many people are unable to access medical services in time and when they do, they are faced with challenged of their spouses or due to myths cannot undergo surgery to have their uterus removed to live longer.

“In most cases they will tell you mythical stories like: Mosali haa sena popelo oa bata ‘me banna ha ba morate translated to means men do not like a woman who doesn’t have a uterus as that results in her not being desirable for sexual intercourse.

Kalikali, referring to one pamphlet on HIV and Cancer awareness and care, said she discovered that a woman should do a pap smear once every year and for women like her living with HIV, they should go for the test every six months.

“When I went to do the Pap smear, the doctors said they should have done it long time ago and regularly. And that is when I discovered that I was at stage 3 of cancer,” she says.

Today, Kalikali wears glasses for her sight problem but continues to champion the fight against HIV/AIDS.

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