We have had one day of training and I have to say that I was deeply impressed with the content on Monday. Most of our focus today was around the PEPFAR (Presidential Emergency Program For AIDS Relief) initiative begun under President Bush. Lots of funding has been channeled to this program in the past few years and our first day of training was spent learning about some of the programs that we can entertain at our sites if we wish to educate our communities on HIV and AIDS.
By mid-morning we had a speaker who was actively spreading the message of HIV awareness. Gifty (not my former Peace Corps Trainer) told us of a story that made a connection to just one individual that she knew who had hopes and dreams of her own changed by the disease. She sketched the story of this woman's life and we listened as she told us that her dreams came to a sudden and traumatic halt when she was told that a blood test had come back with some bad news.
We listened to this activist describe the shock of the woman, the denial and rejection of the HIV-positive status. I couldn't believe that someone could hear the news and then just pretend that everything was fine, that the test must have been wrong and that if she felt healthy then everything must be fine. I should note that we had done an exercise earlier that morning where we pretended that some among us had been exposed to the HIV virus. Some chose not to find out if they would have a positive test – they wouldn't submit to even a hypothetical blood test to determine if they were positive or negative. The denial of the disease is a powerful force indeed.
Yet Gifty's story continued and when she bore a child, she had the devastating news that her newborn child was also HIV-positive. The denial could only go so far. I felt really bad for this woman in her story as she grappled with this seeming death sentence, and what would happen to her. As the story goes though, she explained that with a bit more knowledge and a great big heaping dose of acceptance that maybe this disease wasn't going to destroy her life, but give her a new mission. Then I started to make connection with Gifty the speaker: what if she is the person in the story. I felt nervous and excited to see if this was the case.
As the story closed Gifty turned to the day's organizer and asked if the woman was prepared to introduce herself. He stepped out of the room and then told Gifty something as he entered back into the room. She left and then he said that she would be right out. Then the heroine of the story entered and it was indeed Gifty. I don't remember things very well from my distant past, but I can't recall ever meeting someone who had HIV. And Gifty's story was told to a group of us who probably had many, many preconceived notions of an HIV patient. I know our own country attaches a stigma to the disease and Ghana is not much different in that respect. We typically do not know who has it and who does not, and most who are positive don't lead with that information at your local dinner party.
Here she was telling absolute strangers that she had contracted the virus and was here to smile and give us a face to attach to the condition. Color me impressed. Very impressed. At the end of her talk after she had answered questions she was treated to a long standing ovation from all the participants. I found her after lunch before she left and gave her a great big hug. Two in fact, and I told her that she was incredibly courageous to take upon her shoulders a tremendous challenge. And trust me, she was all smiles as she talked to everyone who greeted her as they said their thanks.
She was definitely a huge influence on me. I hope to invite her to an HIV/AIDS awareness event in my town so that she can keep spreading the word and putting a human voice to the disease.