This World AIDS Day I'd like to share three testimonies from HIV patients who are publicly sharing their stories here in South Kivu.
In 2007 George decided to travel back to his home town of Bukavu to seek medical care after developing diarrhoea, a chronic cough and a swollen leg.
His condition was terrible, some thought he had died en route.
Fortunately these were unfounded and he arrived at Panzi hospital in the city of Bukavu, where he was diagnosed with both HIV and TB.
Although he was in a bad way, he was given hope by the people he saw living with HIV who were healthy.
George stayed in hospital for a month, during this time his family, a wife and eight children, abandoned him after hearing of his illness. They even burnt his chair for fear it was contaminated.
He was taken in by the charity “SOS SIDA” which cares for abandoned and marginalised people living with HIV.
As he improved, he began to take an active part in the charity, helping the sick people who arrived in need of support.
This led to a job at Panzi hospital, where he was initially diagnosed. He started cleaning the wards and then later was given the responsibility to find patients that had been lost to follow up.
He then moved to Baraka and performs the same activities in the MSF supported hospital here.
George has a new wife, who is also HIV positive and two children who, thanks to preventative treatment, are both negative.
The family are a prime example that living with HIV means being able to have the same aspirations as anyone else.
He still sees his old family on occasion but is not really accepted, it upsets him that his ex-wife thoroughly washes her hands after shaking his.
I asked George why he wants to share his story:
“To show that people living with HIV can be in good health and don’t have to just die in one month. They can work any job and have a good life.”
Tackling stigma and misunderstanding in this community will be a slow process but it is thanks to the bravery of people like George that we can make significant steps.
Steps that will encourage more people to be tested, and reduce the number of patients presenting too late to hospital in a critical condition - something we see all too often here.
Walawa was born in eastern Congo. During the first Congo War, in 1996, she fled the country along with countless others fleeing unthinkable violence.
She found herself in a refugee camp in Tanzania where she fell ill. Despite many courses of treatment she never really improved.
As the situation in her homeland became more stable, she moved back to DRC but remained unwell.
Many in her family felt that she had been poisoned. Searching for a cure, she sold her goats to raise money for traditional medicines.
These included enemas to clean her insides and five litres of an unknown liquid that had to be drunk in one day. They had no positive effect and her condition deteriorated.
Eventually she heard of MSF’s activities and in 2009 presented to the hospital in a very poor state with lesions all over her skin, she had lost a lot of weight.
She was admitted to hospital where she tested positive for HIV.
She describes her reaction to the result as somewhat of a relief. Finally, a cause for her illness had been found and she could work towards getting better.
She soon started antiretroviral medication and was on the road to recovery.
Years later, Walawa is in great health. She does not feel held back at all by her infection and is able to work and support her family.
She is an active supporter of her fellow patients. Along with a number of other motivated peers, she seeks out people who have not been turning up to their appointments and helps to bring them back to the service - preventing their deterioration.
On 9 November, Walawa also took the brave step of being the first HIV positive person in our cohort to speak publically about her condition.
During an event in a local village, she stood proudly in front of the crowd and shared her story.
A figure of good health, her testimony showed that living with HIV does not necessarily mean a life of sickness and rejection.
Gilbert is the 55-year-old president of our peer support group.
He first fell ill in 2008, with a cough and a lesion on his lip for which he received medication.
This appears to have been a sign of something more sinister as one week after receiving this treatment he fell into a coma and was admitted to intensive care at the MSF supported hospital in Baraka.
He remained unresponsive for three days, during this time he was tested for HIV as doctors searched for a diagnosis.
Once he recovered he was informed of this positive test result and referred to the HIV team.
On being discharged, he disclosed his condition to his brother and moved into his house for support.
However, he did not receive such a warm reception from his brother’s wife who made him feel quite unwelcome.
Eventually he moved out and still has difficulty with his family who do not fully accept him.
Gilbert is an active member of the peer group support team here. He can be found almost daily at the hospital and often visits patients who are not attending their consultations in an attempt to encourage them to re-engage with care.
He says: “People don’t understand HIV. They have a fear of taking the test because they think that if it's positive, they will die straight away.”
In an attempt to improve public understanding of HIV, he recently shared his story in a busy local market.
A theatre and dance group had drawn a large number of people and during a break in their show Gilbert proudly addressed the crowd and explained his condition.
I have huge respect for him and the others that are doing this. Not everyone will react positively to this testimony and they certainly risk a degree of marginalisation as a result.
But they know that until people are comfortable speaking openly about HIV, the stigma and misunderstanding cannot start to be reduced.