“I come from a village and when I went to school, people would discriminate against me. Many thought that I was going to die soon. Most of my friends didn’t want to associate with me. I was so lonely,” explains Geoffrey, an adolescent, speaking about how difficult life became when he learned that he was living with HIV.
“The biggest challenge to young people living with HIV here is to access the health facilities. That is because there have been a lot of misconceptions about living with HIV. They would rather stay at home because they feel that if they seek treatment, their whole community will be against them.”
Living in Zalewa, Malawi, Geoffrey has been receiving treatment at the Zalewa Clinic for close to a decade. So how does he cope with these challenges?
“I get exposed to a group of people who are the same as me, so I choose to get in touch with them because I know that they are the ones who can help me. Basically, I do not spend time with the community that discriminates against me, I would rather spend my time with those people who can uplift me.”
One of these uplifting personalities belongs to Clinician Tikhale Singano, whom Geoffrey has nominated as a Health Provider Champion.
“Tikhale has played a big role in my viral load suppression,” says Geoffrey. “A few years ago, I almost gave up my life because of depression. Tikhale was there to encourage me, and she would call me to give me hope and make sure that I have taken my drugs, every single day. She also visited me twice a day and brought me fruits and food.”
Tikhale began working with people living with HIV in 2016.
“I saw that there were many challenges being faced, especially with stigma and discrimination. I felt there was a need for me to help,” she says. “It is very important for young people to know that living with HIV is not the end of their life. They need our support, our help, and guidance. How we deliver our services can make sure young people feel comfortable, and show they are not different to anyone else.”
Everyday Tikhale campaigns for this eventuality, evident in how Geoffrey feels about his hospital visits.
“She makes me feel like I am at home, rather than in a hospital. She greets me with a smile, asks me how my week is going. If I have been feeling anything strange, she lends me a listening ear when I am talking without interruptions.”
The final point is particularly important when considering the reality that people living with HIV face in Zalewa, and across Africa. Many health providers do not have enough time to give the kind of support that is needed. In other cases, health providers are not sufficiently trained to counsel on the problems facing children and adolescents.
“Young people living with HIV need a health provider that understands them and listens to them,” Tikhale says. “I have seen situations where young people living with HIV are ignored or sent away from health queues. This is unfair. When that has happened, I have tried to show other health providers that young people are important and deserve to be given attention and must be treated with respect and dignity.”
This sincerity that Tikhale espouses has endeared her to her patients. Geoffrey reminisces over a particular experience.
“I remember one day when I was coming from school, tired and feeling weak, and thinking of how bad the day was since I missed classes as I was sick. My fellow school mates were talking about me and my status, since they had found my hospital book in my bag. When Tikhale saw me face down and looking tired, she came and held my hand and took me to her office. She then went out and brought food and said, “Geoffrey, you are such a good guy. You will achieve anything you want in life”. That brought a smile to my face, and we talked about what happened. She helped me to forget my pain as we started laughing at funny stories about her childhood.”
Tikhale says that the nomination as a Health Provider Champion has really excited her.
“Knowing that the services that we are providing to young people are working and having an effect is amazing,” she says. “This experience has been incredible. I am learning a lot from the young people that I am working with. I am grateful to be able to improve my skills so that I can provide a better service in the future.”