I found out about my HIV status because I was a blood donor. Every time I went to give blood I would fill a form agreeing that they could test my blood for HIV. The last time I donated my blood—it was 1997—I filled the form as always, but the lady in the blood center just took it, put it in the dustbin, and gave me an envelope. I opened it and it said: “We are sorry, we are no longer going to take your blood. You can go and see the doctor.”
I went to the clinic for an HIV test. The results were positive. I didn’t cry. Then the counselor said, “This is the first time I’ve told a person that she is HIV-positive and she doesn’t cry. Why? What is in your mind?” I said, “I’m thinking about my children.”
I started isolating myself from the family—I used to stay in my bedroom most of the time. I kept my status a secret for four years. No one knew.
At the same time, I started getting involved in organizations dealing with HIV and AIDS. A friend of mine used to ask, “Why are you involved in these things about AIDS?” One day I said, “Because I’ve got AIDS,” jokingly, not knowing that she will take it seriously.
Then she told one of the ladies, “You know, Phindi has got AIDS.” On that very day, I decided to tell my mom. I said to her, “You know what? I’m going to sue my friend.” My mom said, “For what?” I said, “She’s busy telling people that I’ve got AIDS, and I don’t have AIDS. I’m HIV-positive.” My mom cried. Then I just left the room and went out to play pool.
The next day when she came home from church I said to her, “You know what, Mom, you don’t have to cry. I’ve been living with this disease for four years now, and look at me, I’m healthy.”
Then she said to me, “Why did you keep it a secret for so long?” And I said, “I was afraid you were going to chase me away from your house. I wanted to tell you, but I didn’t know how.” Then she hugged me and said, “I love you. You are still my daughter.” You see?
I was raped when I was 16, by somebody whom I knew. I had kept this secret for 20 years. After both the rape and the HIV, I wanted to start a new life, to do something challenging. I wanted to heal. I thought, “I want to climb Kilimanjaro.” So I went to one of the churches and told them, “If I can climb Kilimanjaro, even if I die after that, it will be OK with me.” That was December. In January I got a call that the church had raised 15,000 rand for me to fulfill my dream.
For me, climbing Kilimanjaro was a healing process. On the fifth day of climbing I was supposed to reach the top. There is a place called Stella Point, where you can see Uhuru Peak. So my guide said to me, “You know what, Phindi? When you reach this point, you’ll get your certificate. It’s clear that you have done Mount Kili.” I said, “No no no. I want to get to the top.”
When I reached it, oh, I cried—tears of joy. I’m here, in Tanzania, and I’ve reached the peak. And I am healed. Because when I came back, I went straight to the guy who raped me and forgave him. After that, my mom read the story in the newspapers, including about the rape, and even today we haven’t spoken about it.