The Sunday Mail
Yesterday Johana Kasirori turned 52 years old and she is bubbly (literally over the moon) over her birthday, as would any person who would have passed the half-century mark.
But what is extra-ordinary about turning 52, in any case there is a score-and-half of century-old grannies crawling around the country?
Three decades ago, she never imagined she could ever live to see the day that she would hold her own grandchildren.
To understand her story, we have to move back in time, to 1989, when she was a ravishing 22-year-old, to fully understand her elation, happiness, joy, excitement and contentment today.
But the story begins even some three years before, in 1986 to be precise.
“I kind of broke records that year, I am not sure if they should be national records or what,” she laughed nonchalantly, probably as a measure of self-assurance, that what she did back then might have been right.
Like mentioned earlier, and as evidenced on the accompanying images on this story, Johana had ravishing beauty, probably the most beautiful girl at Kwekwe High School, then a Group A school.
This was about the time Ziscosteel, then the biggest integrated steelworks in Africa, was Ziscosteel. And apprentices at the steel company would earn by the bucket. The apprentices were the envy of Kwekwe — it would be folly of immeasurable proportions of any girl to turn down an advance, of whatever nature, from a Zisco apprentice.
That is the long and short of how Johana met Shepherd Kasirori, then an apprentice boilermaker at Ziscosteel.
“I was in Form 3 then. I then passed my O-Levels well and proceeded to A-Level. Little did I know Shepherd was having calculations of his own, he had his own fears, which were unknown to me.”
Probably out of insecurity (it can only be left to conjecture now), on Valentine’s Day 1986, Shepherd seduced Johana into a sexual act, the first time they were to meet sexually since falling in love three years earlier.
“If you count 36 weeks from Valentine’s Day 1986, you will come to November, when I delivered my beautiful baby girl. The first time I slept with him, I fell pregnant. These were the days when the word Durex was taboo.”
Durex, a condom trade name, was at one time the common moniker for any type of condom.
Back to the “national record”. Johana was to complete her A-Levels that year, 1986, get married and deliver a baby — all in the same year.
“I remember the following July (1987) when we went to solemnise the marriage before now Justice Rita Makarau, she asked us to go back and think about what we were getting into.
“Probably pitting such a young girl committing to holy matrimony, she gave us two weeks to think and come back. She looked at me and asked if I had read what was contained in the vows. When we returned after a fortnight, we proceeded with the solemnising ceremony, all the same.”
With Ziscosteel firing on all cylinders, life — and marriage — was bliss for the newly-wedded Kasiroris Shepherd, then staying in Palm Court, reserved mainly for bachelors, applied for “married” accommodation and moved to a three-bedroomed house in Rhodes Crescent, then the Folyjon Crescent of Redcliff.
“Culturally, as well as that my husband was providing everything that I would want, it was wrong to ask of the late hours, and at times weekends out, that my husband was keeping. It was improper, unheard of, and unwifely, to be asking your keeper such questions.”
Then at the beginning of 1989, when baby was about two years old, Shepherd got sick — or ill — whichever is stronger. The medical facilities in Redcliff, and later on Kwekwe, failed to contain the illness, or sickness, which saw Shepherd being transferred to Parirenyatwa Hospital in Harare.
“It was to be a testing time as I would, over the course of the year, regularly travel from Kwekwe to visit him in Harare and I saw him waste away with each passing day. What didn’t Shepherd suffer from?
“I have never seen someone suffer so much. Pneumonia, diarrhoea, vomiting, weight loss, headaches, you name it. There were times the situation was so hopeless that we were told to take him home during some holidays. And once we got home, he would get worse and we would rush him back to Parirenyatwa.”
Then somewhere in the middle of the sickness, Dr Billy Rigava, then one of the doctors attending to Shepherd, pulled Johana aside during one of the hospital visits, and suggested that she be tested for HIV.
“We are talking of 1989, and without any counselling, literature or much information on HIV, I agreed to be tested. The result was positive. To say my world was shattered would be an understatement, I did not know who to turn to, who to tell or who to share the news with. So I kept quiet.”
Realising that he will never win the battle, one day Shepherd whispered into Johana’s ears: “May you apply for something to keep you going when I am gone, I don’t think I will get over this.”
As fate would have it, in December 1989 Shepherd passed on, a very much smaller frame than he was when he walked into hospital.
“Those days HIV was called Aids, also nicknamed ‘shuramatongo’, and there was little or no information on it. So suffer in silence and isolation I did. I could watch those movies, mostly from Uganda, on HIV and Aids, as much as nerve-wracking as they were, would read any literature on the pandemic that I could lay my hands on.”
Besides the ravaging stigma around the disease, stigma which Johana still believes exists even up to this day, there were the in-laws to contend with.
“There I was, finishing school, marrying and having a baby within one year and within the next year or so, my husband passing away. Mind you we are talking of a highly paid Zisco worker, who used to earn about a thousand dollars a month that time, and soon the gospel was witchcraft.
“I had married Shepherd for his money, and killed him so I could be a beneficiary of his pensions. Added to that, we had just bought a house in Rutendo township, adjacent to Redcliff, which added to my ‘motivation’ to have him dead.”
For 15 years after testing HIV-positive, mostly inspired and motivated by Ugandan movies, any available literature on HIV/Aids as well as a well-co-ordinated exercise regime, Johana somehow “cheated” the virus.
“Then in 2004, whilst at assembly at school,” she was now a qualified teacher at Glen Norah High 2, having graduated at Belvedere Teachers’ College in 1992, “I started vomiting. Then the accompanying symptoms, like sweating, losing appetite and headaches, informed me that my time was now up. I had cheated death long enough. But somehow my soul refused to die, I refused to let go.”
Luckily for her, she had a set of supporting siblings around, who though they didn’t know as yet that she was HIV-positive, were prepared to help her in her time of sudden illness.
One of her sister’s friend, who was a doctor in the United Kingdom, suggested a doctor-friend back in Harare, who on attending to the patient, knew the signs and symptoms all too well and initiated her on tuberculosis treatment there and then.
“Because I had tested positive for pulmonary tuberculosis, tor the next eight months I was on medication, taking a daily dose of 35 tablets in the first month. At one time my whole body smelled of tablets. And my health was now failing and I was losing weight almost on a daily basis.”
From a high of about 70kg, Johana was so tiny that she, at one point, tipped the scales at 18kg.
“At that point I decided to open up. I started with my sister and her immediate reaction, up to now, reminds me of how stigma plays out in different forms.
“Every time she drove me to the hospital, clinic or anywhere where I wanted to be driven, she would play gospel songs through and through. Maybe she was praying that I should not die in her hands.”
After opening up to her immediate family, the next stage was her class. “Parents had started complaining that they didn’t want their children to be taught by an HIV-positive teacher and I knew I had to tackle the stigma head-on.
I started with the classes that I taught, I told them of my status and told them HIV was not the end of the world.
“Then I moved to my colleagues at school, I opened up to them and the whole school. Then the stigma somehow subsided.”
The next challenge was church, St Patrick’s Catholic in Glen Norah. “Whenever I sat at the pew, my fellow congregants would move away from the whole bench, not out of sympathy but stigma.
I then became close with the parish priest, who on noticing the struggles I had coming to church and the treatment I received from fellow parishioners when I eventually made it into the church, made it a point not to start any service until I was well-seated.”
After the TB treatment, she was initiated on anti-retroviral treatment and the drugs were not readily available at that time. “By then Wilkins Hospital was the main distribution point in Harare and getting on the waiting list and even waiting for the drugs to be dispensed was a death sentence in itself.
“So my brother offered to buy the drugs for me, but the process at the pharmacies by then was another one hell of an experience. But with time, ARVs became readily and easily available, thanks largely to Government interventions. For instance, right now I only need a dollar to get three months’ supply of drugs, an intervention which could have saved many lives had it been introduced in the 90s.”
From falling in love in 1983, at the tender age of 16, falling pregnant and marrying at 19, being widowed and discovering HIV status at 22, but above all that, having lived with the virus for 30-odd years, it should at least make sense that yesterday’s birthday celebrations were all the more momentous for Johana, a feat she never imagined back in 1989, that she would live so long.
But the journey is not yet complete, she reckons there is so much more to be done in the fight against HIV and Aids.
“We are currently being seized with efforts to help the victims of Cyclone Idai, but I haven’t heard anyone talk of the response to people living with HIV.
“These are people whose medications have been washed away, whose records might have been destroyed in the disaster, people who might be defaulting as we speak, not out of volition.
“But it seems everyone is worried about food, clothes and housing, what about these essential drugs? Maybe there is an intervention, I am not sure, but if it is there it is being done silently.”