I get a call from MSF Headquarters that they need a brief story of an MSF beneficiary for the Annual Report. I have met so many, heard so many stories, written about so many of them, that I decide it is easier just to drive over to our closest project and just meet someone new. I, anyway, always like going to Epworth.
Epworth is about a 30-minute drive east of Harare. We drive along with sunny wind coming through the window. As we get to the township I see the big tan boulders for which this place is so well-known for. The boulders balance incredibly one on top of another, often seeming to defy the laws of gravity. I’ve seen them many times before; they are even on Zim’s now defunct currency notes. Yet, the sight never ceases to amaze me – they are almost like Zimbabwe itself, so precarious yet still, somehow, standing – and beautiful.
We get to the MSF HIV clinic and I meet Stef, the Project Coordinator who I had called in advance. She has an enthusiastic twinkle in her eye, “I’ve got just the lady for you,” she says, “she’s amazing.” We go towards the clinic entrance where endless lines of patients are waiting; either sitting or lying in the wheelbarrows their relatives have used to push them here. “Ah, it’s a quiet day today,” comments Stef which might come off as ironic if you looked around, yet wasn’t if you have been here on other days. The Epworth MSF Project takes care of over 10,000 HIV positive people that live in the area.
At the register table a tall proud lady with a lilac apron is collecting data from waiting patients. Stef asks her if she would be willing to be promoted as one of MSF’s beneficiaries and she enthusiastically agrees. Stef leaves us and I go off to talk with Dadirai.
Even from the first minute I meet Dadirai, I am impressed by her. There is a strength that emanates from her. A drive within, powerful, unquenchable.
It keeps her going on. She tells me first about how her husband got sick but refused out of fear to get treatment. Even when he was dying at the hospital he did not take any medicine — and he died. Then her baby girl got sick and it was discovered the child was HIV positive. Soon after, she herself got sick and when she got tested she found out what she had already guessed — that she also was HIV+. “It was a hard time,” she says matter-of-factly but without self-pity. She could not walk, or eat or take care of herself, let alone her two HIV+ girls. Her older daughter, now 11 years-old, though she was not sick, when she got tested was positive as well. But Dadirai held on and with the help of antiretroviral medicines (ARVs) both she and her little daughter got better.
“I want to help many people,” she says nodding her head firmly and repeating herself, “that’s right, MANY people. I want to stop HIV in Zimbabwe. I WANT that there will be no one more with HIV.” She speaks passionately and with conviction. “I want to help people learn how to prevent HIV, how to take care of themselves – that’s what I want to do.”
Dadirai, now 32, started taking ARVs through MSF’s program in Epworth in 2007. When she joined the program she worked for a year as a volunteer Peer Educator, talking to other HIV+ people and helping them to accept their status and keep on their treatment.
After a year of working hard as a volunteer and through encouragement from MSF staff, she decided to go back to school. She had to walk each day 2 hours — “footing it up and down every day” — to get to the college. She sold vegetables in the evening and Sunday to feed herself and her two girls. “It was difficult times,” she says but she kept on. She eventually graduated from college and now she is proudly working with MSF as a Nurse Aide. She hopes in the future to become a counselor.
In the meantime, she raises her children not to be embarrassed about being HIV+ but rather that they talk to their fellow classmates and teachers at school about the disease, openly, without fear. She herself talks to anyone, anywhere, about her status and the importance of getting tested. Sometimes, she tells me laughing, she will preach to people waiting at the bus stop with her. When they don’t believe she is HIV positive she takes out her container of ARVs and shakes at them. “I tell them – know your status, come get tested, come GET TREATED,” she says with enthusiasm. How could anybody resist this force?