Eleven years ago, Gifty Deegbe, then a recruit at one of the country’s security training schools, was given news that changed her life forever. She was HIV positive.
Her dream of serving her country was shattered and her zeal to live quenched when she was informed about her new health condition. But through family support, counseling and training, Gifty has prevailed against the odds and today is an HIV advocate and volunteer counselor on HIV/ AIDS.
Gifty shares her story in an interview with DAILY GUIDE reporter, Jamila Akweley Okertchiri.
How did you discover you were HIV Positive?
I got to know my status 11 years ago when my director of study at one of the forces training schools in the country asked all the recruits to avail themselves to donate blood to the Korle Bu blood bank. I could not participate in that exercise because I was suffering from malaria. So when I went back after a week he asked those of us who didn’t get the chance the first time to go for sugar diabetes test. He gave me my results—which showed I was negative for sugar diabetes—but asked me to see him in his office. When I entered he told me I was HIV positive.
What was your first reaction when you heard the news?
I didn’t understand what he said. But what can I do? So I decided to go back to my room and we were fortunate to go home for the Easter Holidays. When I came home I didn’t still understand what he said because I didn’t experience any symptoms at that time. All I had was malaria and cough.
So when we came home I decided to go to the Police Hospital to confirm the results he gave me. So I went, and the nurse gave me the pre-test counseling after which the HIV test was done and the results confirmed that I was positive.
How did you take the confirmation of the test results?
Already I had been told I was HIV positive so I was just there to confirm. I remember I shed tears, I wept a lot. The nurse gave me some few minutes to weep after that she gave me the necessary post-test counseling.
At that time there were no drugs for HIV so all she told me was to live a healthy lifestyle and gave me a letter to be taken to my school but out of curiosity I opened it and to my surprise it wasn’t a sack letter but a letter for the training school not to sack me.
Do you have any idea how you got infected?
I cannot tell because I have used sharp instrument with people, tattooed my body, and used one needle with other people. The only thing I didn’t do was blood transfusion. I was an adult at the time so I was also sexually active and it was unprotected most of the time. When I found out my status, the man I was with was HIV negative so I can’t tell how I got infected.
What happened at your training school after you sent the letter from the hospital?
When I sent the letter, my director of study didn’t allow me to enter the classroom because my colleagues were in class. All he told me was that he was going to work on my case and that I shouldn’t enter the classroom till he is done with me.
When he came down from the director’s office he asked me to follow him to his office, where he told me that ‘order from above’ said I have been sacked. There was no sack letter, no dismissal letter, nothing, he only asked me to go to the dormitory, pack my things and leave.
How did you break the news to your family after you were sacked from the training school?
When my friends came to ask me why I didn’t come to class I told them director said that order from above said I should leave but I didn’t tell them why. The only person I told in my family was my younger brother because when I came home, he was curious to know why and he was also very close to me.
I confided in him and told him the truth but to my surprise he gave me his shoulders and embraced me. He even warned me not to tell anyone so it was a secret between my younger brother and me. But the rest of the family I didn’t tell.
Why didn’t you tell the rest of your family?
I was unsure how they would react to the news and at that time stigma was very high so I did not also want them to stigmatize me.
How did your family react when they finally heard the news?
Initially, when they saw me on TV they complained and didn’t like it because they thought it was bringing disgrace to our family name. One member even called me and asked why I was doing that and I told him I was not disgracing myself or the family.
What I asked was, “If you had a condition and didn’t have a remedy but later found a solution to it, will you help someone who is also in the same situation?” He said, “Yes,” and I said that was exactly what I was doing.
We have a lot of evangelists and pastors in our family so for me I think my role is also to spread the message of HIV and that is what I am doing. He didn’t speak again. All I heard was, “I support you, go ahead, may God give you the strength to do whatever you are doing.” That was the man who took me to the altar and handed me over to my husband on my wedding day.
Did you try to seek medical help for your condition?
At that time I was told there was no drug, the only drug available was for opportunistic infection, which I did not have. For me I wanted a cure. All I was looking for was a cure so I went from this pastor to that one drinking anointing oil chewing sugar cubes just for cure; that’s all I was looking for.
How long did you go through this to get cured?
For four years. I was in denial and so I stopped going to the hospital and instead used these things. But after four years I started going to the hospital again.
Why did you start going to the hospital after four years?
I was advised by a friend and I also saw an HIV campaign on TV and that was what motivated me to go to the hospital for medical care.
What changed after you started going to the hospital?
At the hospital I realized I was medically unfit though I physically looked strong and healthy. So I was quickly put on the anti retroviral drug; at that time we had them.
My capacity cells count was down to 136 when I started taking the anti retroviral drungs, but today I can boast of 1,073. Medically, I have changed; my HIV is undetermined (cannot be detected in my system) my viral load is undetermined, I look very healthy, stronger and I have gained more knowledge on HIV.
Did you try to get another job after you gained strength?
No, I haven’t. Because my dream had been buried, I didn’t try looking for any job. When I was at the training school my name was sent to Controller and Accountant General’s Department and I was left with one a half months to pass out so I didn’t know why they should dismiss me. I believe my human right was trampled upon.
I just couldn’t do anything again. I thought I was going to die, so I was only waiting for death to come. I didn’t do anything to make money because for me even if I made money it was useless. That was my intention for not working.
Who would you blame for your ‘unfair’ dismissal?
I would not say it is ignorance. I just think it was sheer dislike from my director of study because he had gone through HIV training and he knew about the infection and how to treat people who have it.
I am saying this because before I was even sacked, anytime this man comes around, this was the question he asked, “Who brought you here and how did you enter here?” My answer was, “You were here when director tested me for driving and I passed so why are you asking me who brought me here. And he asked me this question several times before this incident.
What changed in you since you became aware of your new status?
I’m very careful with the way I live now. I’m more careful about my hygiene, my eating habit has changed. I use to eat anyhow, anytime but that has changed and because my condition doesn’t like stress and isolation, I do things that will not benefit the condition but me as an individual.
It’s been seven years since you started using Anti retroviral drugs. How do you pay for the cost since you have not been working?
I was paying for my own medication.
Where were you getting the money from?
I don’t know how I was taking care of myself up till this day; I can’t tell you. I am not a beggar and I don’t sell my body for money, but I eat.
What I can say is that after accepting my status, I gave up myself to be taught so I had training from the National AIDS Control Programme as a counselor in HIV and AIDS and then Society for Women and AIDS in Africa also built my capacity in advocacy. These have helped me to do more advocacy work on HIV.
In 2008, I went to Uganda and when I came back I no longer feared stigma, so I was going to villages to educate people on HIV and then I disclosed my status. Whoever took me there gives me something; that was what I was relying on.
So have you been sustained by your advocacy and allowing yourself to be taught how to talk about your infection?
Yes and anytime I talk about it I feel like a heavy load has been lifted from me.
What has been the reaction of people you talk with?
Seven years ago, when I told them I was HIV positive, people wept and I also wept but at the end of the day I tell them they shouldn’t weep for me but it is important for them to know their status so they can live a very healthy and long life.
Something new has happened to you; tell me about it.
You know when I started this people’s perception was that I wouldn’t get married. A lot of people said that “Gifty, this will prevent you from getting married,” but I had a very strong faith, I told them that if what I am doing pleases God he will give me a husband.
Many men have come to my life but I realized they were being opportunistic. They thought because I have been on TV maybe I have been given some money that they can take but when they realized there was nothing of that sort they left.
But this particular guy was down to earth. We belong to the same church and society. He proposed to me last year and I accepted and we are now married.
Was he aware of your status when he proposed?
When he proposed I was already in the public domain and everybody knew my status even in church but he decided to go ahead and ask for my hand in marriage and I asked him, “Are you sure?” and he said “yes”.
He said he didn’t know how he was going to die and everybody will surely die on earth so marrying me will be nothing different. Moreover, he has been an HIV peer educator before so he had much knowledge about HIV.
What precautionary measures are you taking as a couple with different health status?
We don’t share sharp instrument but we do share food together, we share a bed together, we protect ourselves and when we want to have children we will see our doctor to tell us what to do and what not to do.
Physically I have to be fit to carry the baby and medically I have to be ok, so these are the precautions we are taking. We are not doing anything on our own wisdom but we seek medical advice.
How are you handling the issue of stigmatization?
I haven’t felt stigmatized except when I was dismissed from my training school and when I disclosed my status in church.
When my church members saw my teaser for the African Cup of Nations people thought I was doing it for money so their attitude towards me changed. But when I told them the truth they accepted me for who I am and that was how stigmatization ended at my church. And that makes me feel like any ordinary person.
What plans do you have for your future?
I am a trained counselor working at the hospital as a volunteer so I am looking at being fully employed by government so Ghana can benefit from me.
What words of advice do you have for Ghanaians?
We should do away with stigmatization because people are dying of HIV, when there are drugs, because of stigma. I think if we should accept HIV like any other disease, people will live; people will accept their status and access treatment. Let all know that stigmatization kills our soul while HIV destroys our body.
If my family had stigmatized me I don’t think today I would have been what I am and because my family didn’t do it, today they are proud of me.
I will also encourage people to know their status, pregnant women should know their status because there is now an intervention that can help prevent mother to child transmission. We need male involvement and support. If my family hadn’t given me the support and a man to love me where would I have been?
Source: Daily Guide
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