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BBC News
Zambian HIV couple confront Aids crisis
Jon Cronin
June 22, 2006
--BBC News has been to Zambia as part of a special series looking at how Africa is faring one year on after the promises of increased aid made at the G8 summit in Gleneagles.

Jon Cronin reports from Kabwe, where a husband and wife both infected with HIV are taking on prejudices surrounding the virus.

In a run-down former mining town in the heart of Zambia, a newly-wed couple are hoping to change the way a country views itself.

Solomon and Matildah Maimisa were married a few months ago, and their wedding caused a stir not just in their home town of Kabwe but across Zambia.

Solomon and Matildah are both HIV positive. They have been living with the virus for several years, and they are determined that their marriage should act as an example to others.

"I and my wife Matildah want to see a change in Zambia, whereby people don't look at those with HIV as different," says Solomon, 38, from the living room of the house he built himself.

"You can still live a better life so long as you accept your life, so long as you accept your status."

Destroying communities

The spread of HIV and Aids is one of the greatest threats facing Zambia.

Already one of the poorest countries in the world, the virus is destroying communities and robbing the country of the very people it needs to build its economy.

Nationally, the HIV infection rate stands at about 16%. But in Kabwe, a town of some 200,000 people, it is estimated that half the population are HIV positive.

The crisis is compounded by the fact that only a fraction of those people carrying the virus know - or are prepared to find out - whether they are HIV positive.

It was against this background that Solomon and Matildah - who are both care workers for local HIV/Aids programmes - decided to make their marriage a public event to raise awareness about the issue.

'Happiest lady'

They met for the first time on World Aids Day four years ago.

"I had that feeling that one day he would be my husband," says Matildah, 35. "When he proposed, I was the happiest lady."

But the marriage of a couple who were publicly open about the virus they were carrying was almost unheard of in Zambia, and a meeting was organised in Kabwe to spark debate in the community.

"We asked people if it was good for someone who is HIV positive to marry", says Solomon.

"We wanted to encourage people, to tell them that even if you are HIV positive, you are still human," adds Matildah.

Their wedding in February this year was given widespread coverage in one of Zambia's national newspapers, and resulted in a flood of calls from people inspired by their actions.

"People looked at me differently afterwards," says Solomon.

Fear and shame

Solomon remembers his own reaction when he first discovered he was HIV positive.

"There was fear, there was shame within myself. I never thought that it could come to me, I was just waiting for the end of the world."

One of the main problems facing those with the HIV virus is discrimination, says Solomon.

"The stigma attached to being HIV positive is something that is really difficult to us as Zambians," he says. "Its difficult to be open and know your HIV status."

Despite the increasing threat of the virus, most people are still reluctant to talk openly about their condition or be seen in clinics where anti-retroviral drugs are available

"People stigmatize themselves," says Solomon.

"They mainly lack information about HIV and Aids, so we need to [teach] people more," says Matildah.

Sex business

Kabwe's geographical location in the centre Zambia, on the main transit route linking the south with the mines of the Copperbelt in north and the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania beyond, adds to the problems it faces.

The town's copper industry was scrapped more than a decade ago after the mines were privatised, leaving thousands of people unemployed.

Prostitution, and the crime that often follows it, is now commonplace.

"The majority of our youth are engaged in the sex business," says Solomon.

"Our economy has stalled, we are really going backwards. When I look at the number of street kids, when I look at the number of orphans, it's really bad for our economy."

Gleneagles promises

And yet Solomon and Matildah remain positive.

They hope that some of the extra millions of dollars in aid promised last year by the rich countries at the G8 summit in Gleneagles will find its way to organisations combating the spread of HIV and Aids in Africa.

"That is what we want," says Solomon. "That is what we are advocating."

A reserved and softly-spoken couple, Solomon and Matildah also hope eventually - with the aid of drugs which prevent the spread of the HIV virus from mother to child - to have a baby.

"God willing," whispers Matildah to husband, at the thought of the future with a child of their own.



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