Alive and Positive: Ten years living with HIV

10-year-old Tanya is assisted by her neighbour Florence in the settlement where they reside in Epworth, Zimbabwe. Photo: Rachel Corner/De Beeldunie

10-year-old Tanya is assisted by her neighbour Florence in the settlement where they reside in Epworth, Zimbabwe. Photo: Rachel Corner/De Beeldunie

In Epworth, on the outskirts of the Zimbabwean capital Harare, 10-year-old Tanya has lived with HIV throughout her life.

Ten years ago, among the humble mud and brick houses in Epworth, a sprawling township 12km south-east of Harare, Tanya was born. Six months later she was diagnosed with TB, then HIV. Less than two years after that, her parents discovered she was physically disabled and could not walk.

“In the first six months of her life Tanya was doing well, but then after six months, that’s when things changed,” says her father, Life Raisi, who has had to raise Tanya and her two siblings largely by himself after his wife – who also had HIV – died in 2010.

Things have not been easy. Life struggles to find employment and does not have the money needed for Tanya’s medical treatment, or to send her to school.

“By the time her mother passed away, she was at the age where she should be going to school. I had lost my job and even now, I am not employed. I can’t raise enough money to take her to a special school where they’d be able to take proper care of her education and her physical needs, including physiotherapy,” he says.

While Life goes out to look for work, Tanya stays home with Florence, a neighbour who has become the child’s main caregiver since her mother’s death. Florence was also diagnosed with HIV 10 years ago at Epworth Clinic, a facility set up with and supported by Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

“Before I was first diagnosed with HIV in 2005, I was always sick. An MSF staff member talked to me while I was at the clinic and encouraged me to get tested. On that day, I was tested for both HIV and TB, and it was found that I had both,” Florence says.

“Tanya’s mother and I were part of the first group of patients from Epworth, and started treatment at the clinic on the same day. I supported her when she fell ill. When she died, I started looking after Tanya too. She needs help as she doesn’t walk and is in a wheelchair.”

‘Being HIV positive hasn’t changed the course of my life’

Zimbabwe is one of the countries worst-hit by the global HIV epidemic. At its peak in 2000, over 30% of the population was HIV positive, many without access to even basic treatment.

That’s why MSF established its HIV programme at Epworth Clinic in 2006 in partnership with the health ministry. Since then, the facility that has helped more than 30,000 HIV patients receive free, quality medical care.

“Being diagnosed HIV positive doesn’t affect me anymore, although initially, it upset me. Now that I have accepted the situation it hasn’t changed the course of my life,” says Florence, who has four children of her own. “Besides taking care of Tanya, I read books related to my condition as a way of making sure I understand the disease and to give me something that occupies my mind.”

Tanya also makes the best of a difficult situation, saying: “I take medication every day. I was told to take the drugs so that I don’t become sick again.”

“My best friends are my brother Terrence and my neighbour Tino (the son of Florence). We play games where we pretend to be a family. When we play, we are dreaming of a good life,” she says.

Tanya dreams of one day being a teacher. Life wishes he had the means to send his daughter to school, so she can make a future for herself. But he has already seen an improvement since she started getting ARV treatment from Epworth Clinic.

“Tanya is a social person, she likes to listen to the radio, to music. She likes to play with other children and is very curious,” he says.

“Before she started her HIV treatment, you would not imagine she would be the young girl she is now. Once she started treatment, her health began to improve.”