I believe HIV is no longer a death sentence. I have had it for a decade and I have lived a full life.
I have unfortunately lost many people as a result of it and for the last decade, it had consumed me as an advocate for its people who have succumbed to it as victims. In fact -- that activism has taken me from the most hopeless situation to that of hope -- in the home of my personal hero -- Nelson "Madiba" Mandela. In his wonderful words and as someone who has also lost his own child and family members from it -- "HIV/AIDS is one of the greatest wars facing humanity in the world. It is a war against humanity and that is how we should fight it."
My meeting with Madiba was arranged by MTV to celebrate his 85th birthday in 2003 for a 60-minute long documentary on youth activism around the world. In it, Madiba was the central character where he was to speak with four young people whose stories provided a personal perspective on world problems. I was one of the four.
Among the four were a political activist from Burma, an Israeli whose sister was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber as well as a Palestinian whose father was killed by an Israel soldier. I was a then Ugandan national who had tested positive and had almost given up on life.
I somehow found courage to do HIV education and support work but was encountering challenges amidst poverty, sickness and hopelessness.
A few days before I was to meet Madiba, I was provided with the book Long Walk to Freedom. I was nervous yet I felt like I was about to be part of a great historical journey that has been the story of Nelson Mandela.
At his residence in Sandton, Johannesburg, was where I was supposed to meet him. In person, I was taken back by his humility, love and he seemed to have no biterness for everything he has been through. I was thrilled and nervous and felt like I was talking to a great human history. Reflecting on my own hardships and struggles, I asked him how he survived the low pay and hardships yet never lost hope in his life. He told me "You have to fight back. It's the best way."
I then asked him if he felt frustrated about the HIV situation in South Africa as well as throughout the continent. He remarked how "you must also realize and tell people that HIV/AIDS is like any other illness. There are terminal diseases and HIV/AIDS is one of them. But stigma is something that kills human beings, sometimes far more than the disease because that stigma indicates that to your community you are no longer a human being. You are human being to be avoided. And that is painful."
In terms of being persist he said that "you cannot concentrate on an individual like myself and say that I have special powers and courage. There is no single individual who can liberate a country. You can only liberate a country if only you can as a collective. As a team. That is an important lesson learnt. I was with a team of people. courageous men and women who inspired me, and others."
In conclusion, Nelson Mandela drew from his experiences as one of the greatest living freedom fighters to advise me about how to overcome personal struggles and obstacles in my life. After 27 years, Mandela was released from prison in a country on a verge of a civil war.
He had a choice ahead of him. Either to seek revenge against the whites who had brutally suppressed his community, or to forgive the past and seek reconciliation between black and white. He chose the path of forgiveness and reconciliation. He gave me inspirational support to carry on the work of HIV advocacy involving different community stakeholders, and to keep a normal life.
I have kept on the fight with the courage and hope he gave me. I will not give up til the battle is won.
He gave a dying soul much encouragement and I am glad, we both share, a destiny and the hallmark of a great Canadian citizenship. His honorary citizenship and mine by choice -- I am glad our destination is now similiar to each other.