An HIV positive soldier speaks to MERAPELO LETEBELE about the challenges and
dangers of going into the open about your status in a secretive institution like the army.
The frail looking man is recounting the story of how some soldiers played a cruel joke on a colleague who was on his death bed. The pranksters, in camouflage tunics, gave the sickly friend undelivered letters and bills addressed to long dead colleagues and told him to deliver them to the rightful owners in heaven.
He is trying to make me understand how difficult it is in the army to come out in the open and announce that you are HIV positive. I recently met with on this young man, who might as well be a total stranger but who opened up to me and “burdened” me with the information that he is HIV positive.
I was not sure how he wanted or, at least expected me to react since we had only been remote acquaintances before the interview.
“I can’t tell anyone just yet because I don’t know how they will react. I think my mother will be devastated and the reason why I don’t want to tell her is because I don’t want to hurt her feelings,” the man said after a long uncomfortable silence. I hadn’t even asked him a question pertaining to that.
Our conversation goes on to touch on support groups and ARVs, but mostly lingers on stigma and all its excess baggage.
My friend, a soldier and a deadbeat dad who is well-aware that I am a journalist, dares me to be different and says cynically that my colleagues in the journalism fraternity are only interested in the statistics and AIDS horror stories. He says I can only write about what he says, and not about him.
He is a mild mannered man, this soldier, with a medium frame and height. Being the first born in his family, he is the sole breadwinner and a father figure to three other younger siblings. Needless to say, he unashamedly neglects his biological child he fathered five years ago just because he deems the mother to be promiscuous.
So, would he say there is stigma at the work place?
“Definitely. It has gotten to a point where they require you to go for an HIV test in order to go for a month’s course overseas. I mean, if you are on ARV, you can afford to carry enough supplies to last you a month. I understand if you are going for years on end, or going on serious missions, but not for short courses. Nowadays, no one will tell you that they might be going away for further training in advance. They only tell you when they’ve got their air tickets, because you can only get a plane ticket when you’ve passed the HIV test,” he says.
“But I’ll say that people, other soldiers are not as crude and immature like that anymore. The mood that I am getting now is, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell. I think it’s better to be quiet about your status because it can backfire on you. We are talking about careers here, if you are careless, let’s suppose you are like me, you are HIV positive and your bosses know about it, do you think you will ever be promoted or be given any responsibility? Your juniors can’t listen to you anymore”
All these statements are one man’s take on the situation at his work place. I ask him what exactly do people fear about an HIV infected person. He shrugs his shoulders, not even looking interested anymore.
“I have no idea,” he says after some moments.
“Anyway, people aren’t as cruel as they used to be.
I too may have been guilty before I knew I had it. You’ll find that every family has now been directly or indirectly affected. Nowadays, even if a renegade says something, fewer people will comment and everyone else looks away and says nothing. I get a sense that people don’t want to entertain all that negative talk anymore.”
I press my friend a little bit more as to whether he considers ever going public to help in the fight against stigma. He smiles and that smile breaks into a discordant chuckle, baring cigarette stained teeth.
“I’m not scared to go public but this is not a good time for me. Seriously, I would. It’s just that I’m not ready to volunteer as a public educator like all those people yet. I think that’s very important.
Maybe when I leave the force in eight years,” he says. When the conversation gets side tracked and the fire is no longer warm, I suggest that we part. I give assurance that I value him as a friend and that he can always lean on me for support.
“Just don’t write my name,” he calls after me, and I wave back. I don’t even know his last name. The desert chill of a Thebephatshwa dusk envelops me.
I try to break into a run but the supercooled air stuffs and stings my nose and I settle for a brisk walk home.