Twenty-three-year-old Melissa Ekirezi, a Rwandese national who lives in Kenya, discovered she was HIV positive, when she was 12-years-old in 2006.
For her, living with HIV has been a journey imbued with both love and rejection.
The lively former USIU student, who pursued a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology, shared her experience with Citizen Extra Trends host, Brian Okoth, about her journey with HIV.
Below is her story:
“I found out that I was HIV positive, when I was 12 years old in 2006. I was born HIV positive, and I was never told about my HIV status until I got to the age of 12. And my knowledge of my HIV status, was out of my own initiative.
“In 2006, the Rwandese Government was really emphasising to the public the need for its citizens to get tested for HIV. I was young and very excited to go get the test. I did not even imagine in my wildest thoughts that I was living with HIV.
“One day, when I went through my late mum’s documents, I bumped into a letter she had written in the year 2000 to one of her uncles, who was living in the USA, asking him to help her with money to buy ARVs because in Rwanda the citizens started receiving ARVs for free in 2004.
“In that letter, she talked about her youngest daughter being HIV positive, and the last time I had checked, I was her youngest child in the family. That made me raise an eyebrow and I was like: ‘Maybe I am HIV positive’. My discovery of the letter only added more oil into the fire because it gave me the urge to enquire about my HIV status.
“I kind of blackmailed my siblings, telling them if I wasn’t going to be tested for HIV, I was not going to sit my primary school national exams that year. That was how I found out that I was HIV positive.
“At first, I did not take the discovery seriously because I am this kind of a person, who never takes seriously matters that she cannot change. I let my life, after the discovery, flow. Then, I was a child and my life was fun. One year after the discovery, when I went to boarding school, it was when the reality of stigma hit me.
“I have had several instances, where I have been stigmatised. Though, there are two scenarios that have stuck in my mind. The first one was when I decided to come out as a person living with HIV in 2011, when I was booked for a TV interview. That was the first time my face was going to appear on a national broadcasting platform. People knew my name, but they could not attach the name to a face.
“One of my siblings called and warned me: ‘If you dare put your face out there, and people get to know that you are my sister, please, tell them we adopted you’.
“The other scenario, which occurred multiple times and it, consequently, became normal to me, was when the mother of my ex-boyfriend told him: ‘If you date her, you want to die. You have the option to choose her or me. She is HIV positive, remember’. We had dated with my ex-lover for 4 years, and I had informed him, from the word go, that I was HIV positive.
“The two rejections really hurt me because the people who propagated them were really close to my heart.
“Though, I got into other relationships after the previous one failed. I stopped ‘catching feelings’ and realised life is just life, whatever it brings your way, you take it the way it comes. Currently, I am not dating because I am focusing on myself and my career.
“HIV is just a status. To me, it is like saying: ‘I am single, I am married, I am divorced’. What I would tell young people out there is: ‘Don’t just assume you are HIV negative. One thinker once said: ‘Everybody is HIV positive until they test negative’. You don’t go for HIV testing to find out that you are positive; you go out to confirm that you are HIV negative. So, get tested; and if you discover you are HIV positive, it’s just life, live it as it comes. Everyone has an opinion, and if you are HIV positive, remember that you are the one who has the power to validate other people’s opinion.”