The man who knows what stigma means
“I have been ridiculed. I have been insulted. I have been looked down on. I have been humiliated. “ These are painful words coming out of John Mwashimba, a 50 year old man who experienced stigma from those who were the closest to him, simply because he was infected with HIV/AIDS.
John lives in Iwala village, located in the Utengule-Usongwe ward in Mbeya Rural. When he remembers where he has come from, he cannot stand it but cry. When he remembers his dear wife who died six years ago, he cannot help it but talk about how he misses her. And when he talks about his HIV status, he cannot hide it but talk openly. His goal is to save the world.
“My dear wife died in 2007, and left me with our seven children. During that time we did not know that it was HIV, since it was not really spoken that openly, and even the hospital did not tell us the truth,” he says, recalling his story.
However, he and his wife had started experiencing stigma even before she died, a situation that caused him to move out of his family house in town and find a rented house in the rural part of Mbeya. And when his wife was sick while they were at the rented house, they experienced even more stigma from the land lady who said openly that they were infected, and therefore must find another place to stay.
When his wife died in March 2007, people were talking badly about him at the funeral. “Imagine they are at my wife’s funeral, supposed to be encouraging me for losing my dear one, but then they started saying loudly that I am infected with HIV. I felt really bad, humiliated, and didn’t know what to do,” he says sadly.
One day when he was feeling ill at home, he was visited by one of his neighbors who also brought him some flour. However, his landlady saw the flour and, while they were not watching, poured it in the sand.
In another incident, as he was out of his rented home, the land lady demolished the bathroom that he was using, and told him that she had done it so that he could get the message that he is not needed in that home. “That was the last straw. I decided to move out of the house and go build something quick at the plot that my wife and I had bought. My children and I built everything out of mud. It is not fancy, but at least we are now comfortable,” he says.
After his wife’s death, a friend advised John to take an HIV test, and he agreed. That was when he first came face to face with KIHUMBE, a local NGO dealing with Home Based Care activities, with funding from the American people.
“I must say that KIHUMBE was the first place where I never experienced stigma. I felt home, I felt loved, I felt important. The founder, Mama Mwakanyamale, is a saint. She has no sin. She has made me and other people like me feel like we are human beings again. She must go to heaven,” says John, tears filling his eyes.
“I respect KIHUMBE. If it were not for this organization, I would have already committed suicide,” he says, emotionally. “KIHUMBE has made me ignore the stigma that I experienced from my relatives. KIHUMBE has made me ignore what my sisters say about me. But what is more, KIHUMBE has made me be in the forefront of helping those who are infected by HIV.”
John is well known for his volunteering job of visiting those infected with HIV through the Home Based Care program. He loves his job and he wants to help people so that they would not end dead, while there is an option to live healthy through ARVs and prevention measures. He says that if they had known about HIV earlier, his wife would have never died.
But another thing that John prides himself of, is making samosas. “After doing my HBC activities, making samosas is my passion. And I am very thankful to God that he has enabled me to have customers who place big orders for the snack. With this, I can live a happy life with my children,” he explains.
John is a very courageous man. He is charming and is always smiling. But behind that smile is a story of bitterness and hurt, a story of loss and regret. However, he is now determined to make a difference in his society, and the stigma that he once experienced would never let him down. John is a changed man.