By Hope and Abigail Nsokolo
As the world celebrates World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, with the theme “Know your status,” we are proud to know our HIV status, especially because two years ago, we would never have considered going for an HIV test. Many of our peers have never been tested for HIV. That is why, this World AIDS Day, we want to encourage other young people to come forward to learn their own status.
Our names are Hope and Abigail Nsokolo, and we come from Ndola, in Zambia’s Copperbelt Province. We are sisters, 25 and 21 years old, and we were not even born when World AIDS Day was launched in 1988. In the 30 years since then, AIDS has had a terrible impact on our community, and our country as a whole. Our mother says ‘chali ichakupumishiwa’ – AIDS came out of nowhere, and it hit us hard. People became thin, were given Panadol, and then they died. Today, things are better in Zambia. Anybody who tests positive for HIV is immediately put on antiretroviral treatment and should not get sick. But we cannot relax until Zambia is AIDS-free.
Two years ago, we joined a program funded by the United States government to prevent new HIV infections in Zambia. The program is called DREAMS, and the goal is to empower girls and young women to be Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe. Before we joined DREAMS, we did not know how HIV was transmitted, and we thought that people who were HIV positive should be avoided. We even laughed at them. Now, we know differently. We know how to keep ourselves HIV-free, and we have HIV-positive friends and family members who we treat the same as everybody else.
Now we know, looking at our community, why young women like us are more vulnerable to HIV infection than most other people. Our community has so many challenges, most of them caused by poverty. When our father died, we were very young, and we had to support our mother to buy food for the family and pay our school fees. We did this by selling vegetables at the market, but it is also common for girls in our community to have unsafe sex with much older men for cash to buy the things they need. Some people call these men ‘blessers,’ but we know they do not deserve this name. Blessers are usually the men responsible for infecting young women in our community with HIV.
Even though antiretroviral treatment is available in Zambia now, many people are still scared to go for testing because of stigma. This means that there are many HIV positive people in Zambia who do not know they are positive, are not taking medication and may be infecting others without realizing it. We have now become educators in our community, teaching people – especially youth – that whether they are negative or positive, it is better to know. If you test negative, then you can make plans to stay that way. If you test positive, you can start taking medication and live a long life just like everyone else.
We have never left Zambia, but have met people from other countries, and have watched lots of TV shows. We think that young people all over the world want to feel in control, and to reach their goals. We have both studied mechanics, and love to braid hair, so we plan to run a family business – a salon with a garage at the back. Women can come and have their hair braided while their cars are seen too. We will talk to all of our clients about HIV, and encourage them to learn their status. Whatever the outcome, their future will be brighter once they know.
We know our status. Do you know yours?
Hope and Abigail Nsokolo are beneficiaries of the USAID-funded DREAMS initiative, being implemented by Pact in Zambia until 2020.