HIV Fight Finds Voice in Liberian Woman

CRS information officer for West Africa, Lane Hartill, attended this weekend the Pan African Christian AIDS Network Conference in Dakar. CRS Senegal helped organize it. He met Africans from across the continent working on HIV and AIDS issues. But one lady from Liberia
stood out. Here’s her story.

Liberian woman

Cynthia Gonleh an HIV positive Liberian talks with at-risk young people, lectures Church groups, and is a frequent guest on radio shows in Monrovia. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS.

I was at the Pan African Christian AIDS Network Conference yesterday. It’s a gathering of people, most of who are affiliated with the Christian Church, interested in fighting HIV and AIDS in Africa.

The day’s sessions rolled out as expected, and lively discussions got going. In one session on orphans and vulnerable children (OVC), a man from South Africa said grandmothers should be included in programs for OVCs because they are often the primary care givers. People nodded in agreement. A woman from Denmark said that orphans need a voice in the decision making process. After all, they know what it’s like to live on the streets, not a bunch of executives in offices. Again, more nods.

All this was great. The Church’s strengths (a massive health care network that cares for 1 in 4 people in Africa) were highlighted. Its weaknesses were also debated. But for me, something was missing, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

In the afternoon, I slipped into session on HIV treatment. That’s where I met Cynthia.
She’s was a tiny woman, as big as a minute. She wore a green dress with flip flops. She had nice braids and matching earrings and necklace. She spoke in a Liberian accent so lush and lyrical, I couldn’t catch some words.

She caught the group off guard: She told them she was HIV positive. The people in the room were suddenly as still as a needle. She told them that people living with HIV need to have a voice, not be sidelined when it comes to decision making. She told them that in Liberia, there needs to be an emphasis on helping people who contract other infections as a result of HIV.

I was blown away. She was it. She was the human element I’d been looking for. I had to talk with this woman.

At the end of the day, Cynthia and I found a table next to the swimming pool. Kids splashed in the water. As the sun was sinking behind Dakar, she poured her heart out to me, a complete stranger.
She was diagnosed with HIV in 2004. “I felt disturbed,” she says. “I felt I was no more part of society. I started self-stigmatizing myself.” She contemplated suicide.

She doesn’t know for sure, but she thinks her boyfriend gave her HIV. He died, and she thinks it was from HIV. (Her husband had been killed in the Liberian civil war, hit with a bullet while fleeing).

She didn’t tell anyone. She was 30 years old at the time and living in a tiny single room with her 9 year-old daughter (she’s negative). She didn’t go out. When she got sick, her daughter cleaned up after her. There was no bathroom, just a bucket. Her daughter took care of that, too. A female pastor with the Lutheran Church also cared for her. And she still supports her to this day.

“If you are HIV positive, you need love,” she told me.

She finally announced publicly she had HIV in 2005. Her relationship with her mom and sister collapsed. “My mother won’t come around me. She’s afraid of me. She says I’m no longer useful in life because I’m HIV positive.”

That couldn’t be further from the truth. Cynthia is a frequent guest on Liberian radio, talking about HIV. In Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, she talks with young people from rough neighborhoods about voluntary testing. She lectures congregations at churches. She is the president of a group of Liberians living with HIV in Monrovia. It started with three people, and it’s now more than 100, with chapters growing across the country.

But something still stings. And that’s what she wants to talk about here at the conference: the lack of support for HIV-positive Africans who contract opportunistic infections.

“If I go to the hospital, I don’t have money. The doctor will give me a bill for 200 or 300 (Liberian) dollars ($3 to $5 USD). I will just leave the bill at my house and that sickness will be inside of me. It’s the other infections that are going to kill me.”

She says she has talked about this with the United Nations, the Global Fund, different government officials. “We are talking, we are talking, but still nothing.” she says.

Just before this conference, Cynthia fell sick. She had no money to pay the hospital bill (she volunteers for the Lutheran Church and occasionally sells oranges and other food on the street.) The Lutheran pastor, the woman that stood by her during her darkest days, helped her again.

Cynthia says more must be more done to address this problem. Financially, HIV positive Africans, who often make little money, can barely afford food. Forget about hospital bills.

Cynthia, this petite single mother who has become a minor celebrity in Liberia for her willingness to speak out about her status, is going keep talking until people start listening.

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