Feminist Chronicles: Diary 9: Auxilia Chimusoro

‘Homosexuals are worse than pigs and dogs.’ I am sure you all know this famous quote and the owner of it, none other than the President of the Republic of Zimbabwe, the Commander in chief of the Defence Forces, the Chief of Police, the Chancellor of all universities, he who appoints [with ceremonial consultation] all judges of the High Court and Supreme Court, and also appoints the Attorney General, the Registrar General, the Ombudsperson, the Reserve Bank Governor and anyone else whose position influences the fate of our country.

And from the day that he made this speech, all and sundry in Zimbabwe were given a free pass to hate gays and lesbians and to express their hatred freely and openly without censure. After all Zimbabweans and their political leaders are such morally upright people that they have a right to hate gays, right?

Given this background, you can imagine how much valour it would take for any gay person to stand up today and publicly announce that they are in fact gay. If lawyers representing gay people can be assaulted how much more so will the gay person? I am not here to start an argument about the moral implications of homosexuality, a debate I have had with many Zimbabweans before but I raised this issue to make a point.

The extent of the hostility of the society towards gays and the stigma attached to being gay in Zimbabwe today is no different from the way anyone with HIV/AIDS was viewed 20 years ago in Zimbabwe, and in some circles even up to date. Some of you may disagree but I am sure that is just because of short memory. I remember that the moment someone was known to be HIV positive they were shunned. It was assumed that they were promiscuous and that is how they got it and preachers would find a reason to talk about sex and morality. Many people would stay away from the HIV infected person, not share a room or a bed (without having sex of course), not share a cup or plate with them because it was believed they would pass on the[ir] virus. Most people assumed the HIV positive person was going to die a painful death and quickly too. Some people believed the disease was linked to witchcraft and associating with HIV people would bring bad luck. What hogwash it all was!!!

Due to the closed nature of society, many people living with HIV were afraid to live openly. Families with loved ones who got sick claimed it was witchcraft. Many AIDS patients in the urban areas were shipped to the rural areas once their health deteriorated, not because they would have better medical care in the rural home but to take them away from public scrutiny and the ensuing million questions, stares and whispers instigated by their deteriorating health. People would not dare publicise their HIV status because it would mean losing friends, jobs and even church membership.

So it was an amazing moment when a woman, [note: a woman] named Auxilia Chimusoro stood up and told the whole nation that she had HIV. This was in 1989 and of course she was shunned, segregated, stigmatised, and alienated. Not just her, but her family too. (Un)naturally, she lost friends, associates and even some of her relatives did not want to be associated with her.

A happy Auxilia Chimusoro

But Auxilia was a woman with a vision. In fact, she was one of the most intelligent people in the country who realised early on that HIV is not synonymous with death.

In the Rujeko Township suburb of Masvingo, where she came from, she initiated the first HIV&AIDS support group in Zimbabwe and called it Batanai (unite).

Her support group later joined hands with others to form the biggest provincial support group in Zimbabwe today, the Zimbabwe National Network of People living with HIV & AIDS (ZNNP+). Today, Auxilia’s support group now revamped into Batanai HIV & AIDS Service Organisation (BHASO) operates in Gutu, Chivi, Bikita, Zaka, Mwenezi, Chiredzi, Masvingo Rural and Masvingo Urban Districts, thus covering the whole of Masvingo Province

The Support organisation runs education, empowerment and support programmes focusing on post test support,  gender dynamics, orphans and vulnerable children, youth empowerment, behavioural change, community home based care, anti-retroviral treatment literacy, food security, water, hygiene and sanitation. It is because of Auxilia’s work that home based care for AIDS patients has become one of the country’s best strategies to deal with the scourge of AIDS at a time when hospitals and other public health institutions are overburdened and failing to cope with influxes of HIV/AIDS patients.

HIV has been demystified so much so that pregnant women are expected to get tested to prevent the Mother to Child Transmission. Persons living with HIV are largely viewed in the same way as cancer or diabetes patients; just another incurable condition that can be managed. A few close minded individuals of course still choose to say HIV/AIDS is unique but that just shows their unique myopic worldview. Thanks to Auxilia and the work she pioneered to raise awareness on the nature of HIV, many people are not afraid to publicise their status.

In today’s Zimbabwe every year an award is given to individuals fighting to stop the spread of HIV/ AIDS. This award is called the Auxilia Chimusoro award. She may have died in 1998 but her legacy lives on.

Debra Messing at the 2009 Auxilia Chimusoro Awards talking to some star struck youngsters

The amazing work of Zimbabwean women!

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