July 25, 2018

Life without limits

Written by Maximina Jokonya

This article originally appeared on Voices of Youth. Reposted with permission.

Maxima - a young leader from Zimbabwe

When I was younger, I was always sick. By the time I was 13, I became quite ill. That’s when my sister took me for an HIV test, which came back positive. I spent the next two and a half years so sick I was unable to walk. It felt as though my dreams and future were shattered.

But now I would describe myself as one of Zimbabwe’s unstoppable young leaders.

I decided to turn my background – being born with HIV – into an opportunity of hope, to live happily and to take chances in life. I always hear people say, “You can change your life despite your background, what you are going through will pass with time, you are going to be this great person.”

But all this never made sense until l decided to live a life without limits.

l decided to leap with the possibility of either landing on a soft spot or hard rock, either way l was going to get up. I decided to give my passion a chance, a chance to make someone smile, to be a listening ear and make dark days seem bright. I have not yet reached there, but every day, l make the decision by putting my best foot forward.

This all happened right around the time I became the sickest I had ever been. I was connected to Africaid and the Zvandiri support programme through my clinic. With their adherence support, skills building and empowering love, I gained the confidence I needed to go from a beneficiary to a role model, a programme implementer and a young leader.

The Zvandiri programme and community have shaped my life to not only develop a passion to work with children, adolescents and young people who are infected and affected by HIV, but to live an exemplary positive life for the community to embrace interventions and to shun stigma and discrimination. Zvandiri is a peer-led programme, committed to helping HIV positive children, adolescents and young people to develop the knowledge, skills, and confidence to cope with their HIV status and to live happy, healthy, safe, fulfilled lives. It worked for me and it is a life saver for so many.

Antiretroviral therapy and social support have been a miracle to me as I lead a normal life that has become a revelation of hope to others. Africaid has moulded me to become confident, articulate, and a young leader who can be a role model to others. I have more than three years of tangible experience working with Africaid and currently a Zvandiri mentor in Mutare district. My role under Africaid also involves training and working closely with Community Adolescent Treatment Supporters (CATS), training and mentorship of Health Care Workers and Guidance and Counselling teachers. l have also worked under the Child Protection Fund, funded by UNICEF providing technical backstopping to the Community Child-Care Workers, mentorship of District Child Welfare Officers on HIV sensitive case management including neglect, stigma and discrimination, violence, abuse and many other aspects that make children, adolescents and young people living with HIV more vulnerable.

Amongst other projects Africaid is implementing, l am also coordinating the DREAMS project being funded by USAID, which is mainly focusing on empowering adolescent girls and young women and reducing HIV new infection. As Africaid always involves the young people at the discussion table, I have had opportunities to contribute to the tools that are used in enhancing adolescents’ psychosocial support such as the soldier game, our story books, red ribbons and roses, amongst many other tools. These tools have been written and designed by children, adolescent and young people living with HIV, sharing their own experiences, in order to help others who might have many questions as to how to simply live life in the best way possible.

I am also involved in national advocacy work towards policy change, lobbying for funds, evidence-based and innovative research that will improve the well-being of children, adolescents and young people living with HIV. As a young leader, l had an opportunity to be part of the Mandela Washington 2016 Fellow, representing the young people in my community to achieving geographic and gender balance, appropriate disease and key population representation.

In 2007, l joined the International Maternal Paediatric Adolescents AIDS Clinical Trials (IMPAACT) group and HIV Vaccines Trials Network (HVTN) Community Advisory Board member in Zimbabwe. My role involves community engagement about on-going studies, which means I facilitate interactions between the communities.

Recently, in 2017, l was selected to be part of the International Partnership for Microbicides. My role is to provide technical support and insight on how the community can access a different array of HIV Prevention interventions such as the Dapivirine ring, gels, Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis amongst other different prevention methods.

In summary, it is of importance to engage different networks, from national government, organisations up to international policy makers in regard to the children, adolescents and young people to have access to quality, differentiated and sustainable services, encompassing and observing human rights and gender mainstreaming. Most times, children, adolescents and young people’s needs tend to be blanketed into the needs of adults and this calls for active lobbying and advocacy.

I might not reach all the governments and organisations around the world, but every platform provided is an important opportunity for our voice to be heard and that is what drives me on a daily basis. It is a work in progress and one step at a time matters in changing our world of living with HIV.