MARCH is designated as the month of Youth Against HIV/AIDS and forms part of the government’s prevention strategy in a business that is a 24/7 all year round battle.
Each year the emphasis is on young people taking responsibility at all levels of society to enable them to win the war.
It is a long term commitment for a generation that has been born into an era of instant commodities – instant coffee, instant noodles, instant weight-loss, instant loans, instant karma and amongst the other instant connections in this high-speed world of ours, there is of course the demand for instant sex.
But there is no quick fix to the HIV problem. I would like to take you back to the days of my youth, to an era before the instant generation when we seemed to have more time, and where negotiations for love relations were often a protracted, laborious affair.
Before the advent of literacy and the writing of letters, friends would negotiate on behalf of their shy peers if the parents had not yet beaten them to the game by arranging the marriage.
Then when we learnt how to write, the man would use the pen to declare his love and pour his heart out on paper.
The letter would travel by hand till it reached the admired young lady who would in turn ask the man to give five good reasons why the partnership was desirable.
She would then go about enquiring from the person negotiating the relationship details of the man’s character in a personalized love CV, as if he was applying for the job of husband.
The nearest thing to romance was a dance that is called iperu in ikalanga, where young ladies and young men line up on opposite sides and as the music goes on gentlemen would pick out a girl to dance with.
Afterwards one or both would go home to fantasise about other possibilities besides dancing.
In modern day Botswana with cell phones, face books and maitisong, our society has acquired more sophisticated ideas about love deals and the time taken to conclude them has greatly reduced.
I was thinking about this at the Kgotla when I encountered a young man who had been referred to me by the police who felt strongly that other than the criminal charge they were dealing with, there was a social dimension that also needed to be addressed.
Kao came to see me in the company of the young girl he had been assaulting repeatedly. He showed no remorse for his actions as he felt that Otty deserved to be taught a lesson that she would never forget.
The young man spoke very softly and slowly but every word that came from his mouth was calculated at scoring a point towards convincing me of Otty’s gross negligence and calculating attitude on one hand, and his trust and innocence on the other.
They had been in a relationship for less than two years, but had parented a lovely baby girl who was playing with their helper outside.
Theirs had been love at first sight and as Otty was not working, it made sense for her to move in and live with him.
The subject of HIV/AIDS had never been discussed until the day Otty had gone for antenatal care.
There she was told the brutal truth that she was HIV positive.
Scared and distressed she returned from the clinic pointing an accusing finger at her man saying that he must have been the one who infected her.
The news came as a shock to Kao whose cards from Tebelopelo suggested that he was HIV negative just two months before his relationship with Otty.
But when he thought about it he accepted that Otty could be right because although he checked his status regularly there were days when he took risks.
They came to terms with the matter and supported each other until the birth of their child.
The turning point came one evening when Otty had gone out for a bridal shower and Kao was desperately searching the house for the registration documents of their vehicle.
It was then that he made a stunning discovery. He found hospital cards dating back seven years before their encounter showing that Otty had been taking anti retroviral medication.
Anger started welling up within Kao and he could only operate life on one channel, that of aggression and bitterness.
He sent an SMS to Otty that she should urgently come home because their little angel had become sick.
When she returned she was presented with a display of the cards that had been her personal secret all these years spread across the table.
She looked at Kao whose boiling fury erupted as he barked out the threat: “Mpolelele nnete eseng jalo otla thanya ole mo kesing ya tshipi ya hwelamahala” -meaning ‘tell me the truth otherwise before you know it you will be in the steel coffin belonging to the police.’
Otty tried to speak but the only word that she managed through the uncontrollable tears was a feeble sigh of ‘sorry.’
Although heartfelt it was not nearly enough to appease an incensed Kao. From that day she became a human punch bag for his unending rage, which she accepted with silent resignation, putting up with the beatings because she felt she had to pay for her betrayal.
Then when she could take it no more, and fearing for her life, she found the courage to report the matter to the police.
After listening to their story I asked them to come the next morning with their parents in order to gain family support for the trauma they were going through.
I explained that the confidentiality code had to yield in order for the parties to embrace that support.
The next day Kao again narrated his story without contradiction – all Otty could say in response, head owed and with tears splashing down onto the floor, was a whispered Intshwarele rraagwe Tumo” – meaning ‘forgive me please.’
WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU WERE THE JUDGE?
The points to consider:
• Health issues were never part of negotiating a new relationship even though we live in the era of HIV/AIDS, so Otty chose to remain silent about her status.
• What we generally assume as the golden rule when we begin relationships – the safe sex message- was thrown out the bedroom window in the heat of the moment of lovemaking.
• Although our communities have generally overcome the stigma challenge, at a personal level there remains a heavy burden that often prevents individuals from disclosure.
In conclusion Kao was referred to psychologists for professional counselling and his parents, who at one point seemed ready to rip poor Otty apart, were reminded that despite the discovery of Otty’s medical records, it did not necessarily mean that Kao was indeed negative before the relationship began.
The fact that he omitted to protect himself on the first encounter with Otty also implied that he was in the habit of neglecting protective measures.
The parents were counselled to accept the status of their children and to support them.
There is a very powerful message in this story of the human dilemma surrounding HIV/ AIDS.
But if one thing is clear, it is that despite the instant gratification that sex can bring, it is vital to think of personal safety before engaging in a relationship that might start in bliss, but which could end in the trauma of a one-way ticket to death.
Botswana relies on every young person understanding this reality if we are to move towards achieving the goal of zero infection.
For whilst we might find love at first sight, no one comes into a relationship without a history. It is not unromantic to raise HIV related questions when we find love – it is just plain common sense.