When Nambewe learned that her husband was HIV+ in 2001, she was angry and desperate. Convinced that death was knocking on her door, she retreated into a darkness within. Thirteen years later, this 38 year-old mother and “aunty” has become a shining example and an agent of inspiration in her community.
“My husband fell seriously ill in 2001. Despite going to a few hospitals, we did not know what was wrong with him. It was only at Chiradzulu District Hospital – a pioneer in offering free HIV testing and treatment – that we were able to find out the truth,” recalls Nambewe.
The news changed her life forever.
“’You are HIV+’, a white doctor whispered into my husband’s ear. I twitched in disbelief – I did not want to accept that my husband had been unfaithful,” says Nambewe.
Her husband started antiretroviral treatment and regained his strength. However, Nambewe’s shock and denial prevented her from seeking testing. In 2003, after developing shingles, a condition often seen in patients whose immune systems are compromised, Nambewe wandered from one hospital to the next, searching for medical help. It was at Malawi’s Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital where she was diagnosed HIV+.
“I immediately felt sorry for myself and my five year-old child. I feared he would become an orphan. I also cried for the village children back home who relied on me for financial support,” remembers Nambewe.
However, the worst was yet to come. Her marriage ended in 2004. Many of the people she knew, including the village chief, rejected her because of her HIV status. What hurt more was that they did not denounce her husband, even though they both were HIV+.
“The village people taunted me and called me a walking corpse. I tried to reason with them to allow me stay in the village. Without money to survive, I knew my future would be bleak if I allowed them chase me out of my village,” Nambewe stresses.
The stigma was unbearable. In 2005, Nambewe realized that she would be happier if she confided in a family member she could trust. She shared her secret with her younger brother, who having just graduated from high school, was mature enough to understand her challenges and help.
Today, Nambewe walks each morning along a dirt road down from the Zomba plateau to reach Dignitas’ Tisungane HIV/AIDS Clinic where she helps out as an Expert Patient. At the clinic, she shares her real life struggles with newly diagnosed patients to help them overcome their trepidations about seeking testing and treatment.
“Expert Patients are HIV+ women and men who want to help others in similar predicament. They are excellent role models who can genuinely relate to new patients,” shares Harriet Akello, Clinic Coordinator at Tisungane HIV/AIDS Clinic.
Expert Patients like Nambewe help to reduce the burdens associated with a severe shortage of trained health care workers in Malawi. These patients, who themselves are successfully managing conditions like HIV and TB, provide administrative and basic patient-intake support like weighing and measuring, thereby enabling trained medical staff to spend more time treating patients. Expert Patients also provide peer counseling and psychosocial support.
Nambewe is among a few dozen Expert Patients who volunteer their time for their communities. She even supports Dignitas’s Teen Club in Zomba where she and a small team come together every month to help HIV+ adolescents learn how to mange their health condition as they transition into adulthood. She has become an “aunty” to many young people who are living positively with HIV.
“I love spending time at the hospital because I interact with people who are just like me. I don’t have time to feel sorry for myself. I am happy to make others happy too,” Nambewe says.