- “Today I would like to say thanks to ART that I am healthy. Nothing on me shows am living with the disease. We should continue to intensify programmes that target young people especially young adolescent girls so they do not get HIV early, including issues of sexual reproductive health and rights. We need to stamp up efforts and reach hard to reach areas.”
National Aids Council (NAC) board member representing persons living with HIV, Tendayi Westerhof, has been living with the infection for 19 years.
Having experienced HIV first hand, she is living proof of how science, a positive mind and a healthy lifestyle has enabled her to watch her four children and five grandchildren grow.
On June 22 this year, Westerhof, who is a former model, celebrated her 55th birthday and shared her story.
Growing up at Empress Mine in the Midlands province and attending Rio Tinto Secondary School, Westerhof led a normal life.
“During my time we had restrictions on things we could do and what we could not do as children,” she told The Herald on Saturday. “I am privileged I grew up with both my parents.”
However, her father died in 1986 when she had just turned 18. She remained with her mother, siblings and a step sister.
Working hard to get an education, she studied business leadership, biblical studies and modelling, also doing several refresher courses.
“During that time, I was a fashion model and owned one of the biggest modelling agencies Glamour Modelling. I enjoyed my modelling. I started modelling when I was already mature, had three kids. I am blessed because I look younger. I participated in shows, pageants, commercial advertising for Edgars etc.”
When she started her modelling agency in 2001, Westerhof trained many young people who included some university students and prominent lawyers.
In 2002, fate had other plans for her, handing her a life changing situation.
Westerhof, who was 35 and had been married for two years, discovered she was HIV positive.
“The world around me crumbled, I had to deal with my status and denial. I did not know what my future held. I was also afraid of being alone.”
For almost one year, she kept her status a secret even from her family.
She said only her husband knew.
“I later found out information about the disease. This is the first time I knew we had HIV service providers available in Zimbabwe. I went to one of them to ask about HIV and each time I had to disclose my HIV status. I wanted to know if I could live.”
After several counselling sessions, Westerhof was convinced HIV was no death sentence, she would live.
She gathered information of HIV treatment, antiretroviral therapy (ART), though not readily available in Zimbabwe’s that time.
“I knew a few public hospitals were dispensing them. I was put on treatment and was getting from private sector where I had to buy. It was expensive that time.”
Having to deal with the reality of her status, Westerhof also battled stigma.
“At family level, stigma affected me and exposed me to gender based violence (GBV),” she said. “I was blamed for bringing HIV in the marriage and it crumbled. Some relatives did not want anything to do with me when I disclosed my status.”
The stigma also affected her children, especially when she publicly disclosed her HIV status a year later.
“My children were affected by my disclosure. Sometimes they would be mocked at school and in the community. Some said ‘those are Tendayi’s kids, the crazy woman who disclosed her status on television.
“People who have HIV do not publicly disclose their status. Most thought I had an ulterior motive and an agenda.
“They thought I disclosed my status because my marriage was breaking up. I was labelled as a gold digger, a person who was after donor money.”
The stigma, she said, was bad because she was a model and looked healthy, it was not proper for her to say she was HIV positive publicly.
“People were used to sickly people as the faces of HIV positive people. They were used to such faces that time.
“Yet when I disclosed my status, I was crying for help, but I did not get that assistance from so called organisations and women organisations etc. I suffered a lot of GBV.”
According to Westerhof, no one believed her when she first spoke about GBV.
“Society has a way of suppressing voices,” she said. “HIV and Aids is suppressed with its devastating effects. The fact that I was a model, I was labelled promiscuous and many people thought I had brought HIV in the home and there was no need to talk about it.”
Her voice suddenly cracked as she reminisced the emotional trauma from back then.
“It was hurtful,” she said. “Sometimes I would wake up at night and cry. I would weep alone, and not many people knew that I would cry. I did not see the justification on why I had tested HIV positive.
I felt it was too much and it had to happen to someone else not me. The good thing is I became bold especially and I was put on treatment.”
At a time, Westerhof had new hope for life, she became pregnant.
“It was not easy to negotiate for safe sex especially in a home. No one could believe a woman could be raped by her husband. I was labelled for setting the guy up since I was being divorced.
“The whole story is known my life has been an open book. The pregnancy was denied publicly in newspapers. People would write whatever they wanted to say about me. The things were spiteful, but I had to stay strong.”
Westerhof said she was empowered by the elimination of mother to child transmission programme in Zimbabwe, which she accessed for free even to those going through private hospitals.
“The PMTCT programme in Zimbabwe has always been free,” she said. “I was enrolled on the programme and ensured that my unborn baby was safe from HIV.
“Six weeks before delivery I was put on AZT prophylaxis to ensure my unborn baby does not contract HIV. A few hours after birth, my baby was also given nevarapine.”
Westerhof gave birth through Caesarean section, and says she took all the precautions.
Back then this was the safest way to prevent mother-to-child transmission.
“Elimination of mother to child transmission has now transformed. HIV positive women who undergo programme can now give birth naturally, and can also exclusively breastfeed their children. We have seen positive mothers giving birth to HIV negative babies,” she said.
Hers is a success story of elimination of mother-to-child transmission.
“I thank our government for such a great programme,” she said. At 18 months her child was tested and was negative. At 18 years, the child also got tested again.
“When I asked her why she went for the test, she said some people at school mocked her that ‘your mum is an HIV activist she is living with HIV therefore you have AIDS’. She wanted to break the stigma. She also encouraged the schoolmates to tell their parents to get tested for HIV.”
This year marks 40 years since the first case of HIV was reported globally.
The year also marks 40 years of the founding of the Global Fund, the largest funder of all HIV interventions at country levels.
“Since the first case HIV in 1986 to date, Zimbabwe has reached the target of putting 1 million people on treatment and I am among them. We still have a missing target. From the statistics of over 1,3 million people living with HIV, we need to get hold of those 300 000 to 400 000 still in need of urgent HIV treatment.”
With the new strategy of test and treat, Westerhof says there is need to ensure no one is left behind and reach the targets.
Westerhof has seen the ageing pandemic, she has grown with it.
“Today I would like to say thanks to ART that I am healthy. Nothing on me shows am living with the disease. We should continue to intensify programmes that target young people especially young adolescent girls so they do not get HIV early, including issues of sexual reproductive health and rights. We need to stamp up efforts and reach hard to reach areas.”
Every woman and adolescent girl, she emphasised, should have access to HIV services.
She said she was part of the process that advocated for the formation of the Aids levy.
“Today Zimbabwe is a success story, we have the aids levy and a NAC which is found in almost every district at every level around Zimbabwe,” she said. “That is a success story which I was part of since I disclosed my HIV status in 2003 and also joined this movement of HIV activism.”
At 55, Westerhof is conscious about her health and eats wholesome foods.
“I go to the market, eat lots of veggies, chicken, fish, mushrooms and fruits in season. I stay away from any canned and preserved food. The only preserved food I use in my home is cooking oil, margarine. I put lots of spices in my food. I use a little oil and boil meat with salt. That is how I have managed to stay healthy.”
She has studied her body and now knows that with certain foods her body reacts in a certain manner.
“I avoid those foods. There are times I exercise, but cannot do vigorous ones anymore. I have limited exercise as my body is ageing. I cannot jog anymore, but go for power walks.”
She says her body has been disfigured, the side effects of ART have not spared her, emphasising this will not make her stop treatment.
“I take my treatment diligently and every quarter of the year I go to the clinic at least twice. When I feel pain or illness I quickly get checked. I have not suffered any opportunistic diseases lie TB, STIs etc. I have taken good care of myself.”
She admits she is a weak woman.
“My only weakness is I work too hard, it’s like I am the central processing system for everyone.
“Even at night I am talking to women, my phone is ringing. I never miss a deadline if someone wants something at 8 am they will find it. I am now married to my work. I listen to music, reggae and still love it. Listen to gospel music.”
Westerhof has one biggest regret in her life: “I allowed myself to experience a heartbreak. I regret not being assertive enough to see that I was not loved and should have just carried on with my life.”
She is the author of the book, “Unlucky in Love”. ■