The Sunday Mail
TESTING positive for HIV, losing two siblings, a sister-in-law and a niece to HIV/AIDS-related complications, a broken marriage and being jobless sums up cleric Maxwell Kapachawo’s sorrowful life in the last two decades.
The 47-year-old spent a greater part of his time between 2000 and 2004 bedridden.
Back then, HIV/AIDS stigma was still rife.
The terrible experiences still haunt him to this day.
“Most people would come to our family funerals assuming that it was me that had died since I was ill for some time,” he reminisces.
“It was a tough time. I was forced to stay indoors. They would not let me be part of funeral proceedings at home and even denied me the chance for body viewing of my departed relatives. It still hurts me even up to now.”
Pastor Kapachawo made headlines in 2004 after becoming one of, if not the first man of the cloth to disclose his HIV-positive status.
He featured in a Population Services International (PSI)-sponsored television advertisement with the popular catchphrase “Handisi mu departure lounge, ndirikurarama ne HIV . . . ”
Not much information was known about the virus back then.
To get a better appreciation of his story, one has to begin in 1999 when he fell ill during his pastoral duties in Gweru.
His circumstances forced him to move back to his parents’ place in Harare to seek medical attention.
After frequent visits to the hospital for recurring ailments, doctors were left with no choice, but to suggest that he undergoes an HIV test.
The results came back positive.
Confused and in search of help, he opened up to his bishop, who unfortunately advised him not to share the news, lest “it created a bad image” for the church.
Instead of getting support, he was actually relieved of his duties and left with no source of income.
The situation was equally bad at home.
His wife was angry with him after he disclosed his status.
She gave him the silent treatment for close to a fortnight.
Hitting hard times and having to deal with a distraught wife, he at some point even contemplated committing suicide.
With the community still less informed about the virus, neighbours and visitors had no kind words for the then-ailing cleric.
As a result, he had to shun visitors.
Around that same time, his brother, who had just tested HIV positive, committed suicide after failing to deal with the pressure.
“To date, I still find it tough to talk about what I went through during that time. Life was not easy, the world was crumbling and I felt it was better to die,” he sighed.
“I was confused . . . my brother committed suicide after testing positive. He failed to get closure. I did not want to go down the same road and yet everyone did not want to hear about this virus.”
The world was not yet producing the life-saving Antiretrovirals (ARV), but medical practitioners did their best to deal with opportunistic infections that troubled him.
With proper health care, he started recovering in 2004.
He joined an HIV support group that was based in Chitungwiza after meeting them through his frequent hospital visits.
It is then that he got an opportunity to meet other HIV-positive individuals, sharing testimonies and encouraging each other to fight stigma.
With time, he also joined another support group, New Life, which usually gathered during weekends.
However, despite all this, Kapachawo still battled self-discrimination as most people associated HIV with promiscuity.
As a result, at New Life, he only wanted to be attended to by one counsellor.
“Whenever the counsellor was not around, I would opt to go back home without getting any form of counselling on that particular day. I could not stand telling my story to someone else lest they judge me,” said Pastor Kapachawo.
Later that year, he was invited to attend a symposium in Harare which brought together more than 20 HIV-positive pastors from across Africa.
There, the men of the cloth openly shared their statuses and how they had conquered the stigma.
This renewed Pastor Kapachawo’s hopes of living and to continue preaching the gospel.
“I started preaching the gospel of hope, slowly bringing in the subject of HIV/AIDS and how pastors like anyone else are also prone to such, but it was still odd news to the public,” he reminisces.
He recalls being brought into one of the pastors’ fraternal meetings with church leaders asking to pray for him.
At the meeting, some pastors questioned how a man of the cloth contracted the virus and some even openly accused him of being promiscuous.
“Such questions are embarrassing even to this day. I left the meeting in tears and yet this is a place I expected to get comfort.”
Issues of HIV/AIDS did not need prayer, he argued, but needed to be openly discussed to gain more knowledge and fight stigma.
In 2014, his experiences motivated him to create space for clergymen who found themselves in the same predicament.
Pastor Kapachawo is the founder and national co-ordinator of the Zimbabwe Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV/AIDS (Zinerela).
The organisation supports religious leaders living with or who have lost their loved ones to HIV/AIDS.
However, the formation of Zinerela brought more problems for him, as more people and churches began to openly shun him.
But, it is only then that he got access to ARVs and started taking his medication.
“When I started taking ARVs, I initially suffered side effects, but later they subsided and I became stable. During that time, we would take three tablets per day, but now it is only one. I have never defaulted to this day and I still take the first-line treatment,” he said.
His wife, who had then come to terms with his condition, started supporting him but did not get tested until the end of 2007.
She never showed any sign of failing health and the couple used protection each time they were intimate.
When she eventually volunteered to get tested, the results came back positive.
She immediately joined the ARV treatment programme.
Just when things appeared to be falling in place for Pastor Kapachawo, his wife left for South Africa in search of the proverbial greener pastures.
Sadly, she never came back.
In fact, she got married to another man.
“Life is sometimes very cruel. When she left, I believed it was all in good faith. She said she was going to find a job to help provide for the family, but she never returned . . . she has moved on, but we still communicate because of the kids,” he said.
“It is painful when the unexpected happens, but life has to continue.”
In 2010, he also remarried, but his new wife unfortunately passed on, leaving behind a two-month-old baby.
The child later succumbed to tuberculosis.
“I got hurt, so I have now decided to stay alone and look after my two kids from my first wife. The first born is now married and I stay with the second born, who is now also a pastor.”
Due to his status and history, the man of the cloth said it is difficult for him to get attached to any particular church.
But as an independent pastor, he is usually invited to various occasions to share HIV/AIDS teachings.
“The journey, especially in church, has not been easy, that is why now I am not attached to any church. I call myself ‘Mufundisi we Aids’ because that is what people know about me,” he said.
“However, over the recent past there have been some notable improvements in some areas. The stigma is no longer rife and access to ARVs has also improved.”
The world continues to observe World AIDS Day since December 1, 1988.
The day is dedicated to raising awareness of the AIDS pandemic and remembering those who have died of the disease.