For students like Hazel, the end of summer is nearing and the start of another academic year filled with new experiences and friendships is just around the corner.
Although the break has flown by, fourteen-year-old Hazel, who hails from Zomba, Malawi, is looking forward to resuming her studies and making preparations for her future.
Results from Malawi’s Primary School Leaving Certificate examinations will determine Hazel’s next move. A passing exam grade allows students to move on to secondary education.
“I will make it,” says Hazel, who hopes to attend a boarding school in her home city.
With strong grades in sciences and social studies, Hazel aspires to become a medical doctor one day.
“I want to be like my mom’s friends who are medical workers. I would like to treat patients and look after my relatives.”
Having lost both her parents to HIV/AIDS, Hazel wants to help others by pursuing a career in health care. She has been HIV+ since birth but only learned her status three years ago.
Hazel’s mother had fallen ill and was rushed to Zomba Central Hospital where Chrissie Gondwe, one of Dignitas International’s nurses, attended to her. During the visit, Hazel was also tested for HIV.
“That’s when I learned I was HIV+. It was hard to accept the truth but Chrissie counselled me and helped to alleviate my fears,” Hazel recalls.
Ruth, the sister of Hazel’s mother, remembers the day when Hazel found out that she had HIV.
“She was so upset and blamed her mother for giving her the virus and for not telling her about it. She was understandably shaken up.” Later that year, Hazel’s mother passed away.
But Hazel been able to overcome her pain with the support of Dignitas International’s Teen Club.
The objective of Teen Club is to provide a safe and nurturing environment for HIV+ youth so they can build strong supportive relationships, strengthen their self-esteem and develop skills as they transition into adulthood. In addition to receiving regular medical check-ups and a supply of antiretroviral medicines, teens like Hazel learn how to make healthy life choices. More than 600 adolescents attend Teen Club every month.
Hazel now lives with her Aunt Ruth. In Malawian culture, Ruth is her mother too. Ruth has one child of her own and takes care of two other kids in addition to Hazel. Ruth’s husband is a truck driver while Ruth earns a modest income by selling rice grown locally.
“I sell one kilogram of rice for 300 Kwacha [about 80 cents],” says Ruth.
Chrissie Gondwe, the nurse who first diagnosed Hazel, also serves as a Teen Club counsellor and continues to support Hazel’s health and psychosocial needs. According to Hazel, Teen Club has given her the strength to adapt to challenges, including changing schools and making new friends.
“When I start high school, I will tell the school authorities and a trusted friend. They will understand my health needs and will be my pillars of support,” she says.
Like many girls her age, Hazel receives her fair share of romantic proposals from suitors. She rejects them all.
“I want to concentrate on my studies now,” says Hazel who takes a pragmatic approach to the matter.
“But when I’m older and ready to think about marriage, I will be open about my status with potential suitors.”
Thanks to Malawi’s efforts in preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV, Hazel knows that when she is ready to start a family, she will be able to give birth to an HIV-free baby. This gives her hope.
Despite her soft-spoken demeanour, Hazel is quite confident about her future, “I will surely make it in life,” she says.