THE old adage which says “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’, aptly sums up the journey through which renowned HIV activist and clergyman, Reverend Maxwell Kapachawo walked in his quest to conquer the ravenous HIV/AIDS claiming millions of lives annually.
By Kudakwashe Pembere
Most of you still remember the famed 2005 Television and Radio advert, “Ini ndiriPastor uyezve ndiri HIV Positive. Ndinosevenza neZinerela. Shoko rangu guru nderekuti HIV haina shasha inogona kubata chero munhu. Mwari vanechekuita nehupenyu hwangu nehwako. Naizvozvo ngativarumbidzei Hallelujah!
….Ngatinamateyi kuti Mwari vatiitire Nyasha. Ngatiitei machechi uve mukana wetariro, rudo nekutorana sezvatiri pasina rusarura kune vane HIV.”
Loosely translated as, “Im Maxwell Kapachawo a pastor who is HIV Positive. I work with Zinerela. The big message I would want to share with you is HIV knows no champion. God has a purpose for your life and mine. That said, let’s praise him. My wife and I had a torrid time grasping this condition until our pastor friend talked us into accepting the condition. Coming to terms with this condition was my elixir.
“…Let us pray for God’s grace. May our churches become opportunities of hope, love and unconditional tolerance without neglecting people with HIV.”
The advert was done by none other than Reverend Kapachawo who at age 33, braved the storm and made that public announcement. The TV advert was sponsored by Population Services International (PSI). During that time when Rev Kapachawo came out as positive, an HIV diagnosis meant death owing to various factors chief among them being the absence of medication, denial, stigma and discrimination among a host of other issues.
Not only did Rev Kapachawo defy societal perception of HIV, he also challenged the notion that men of cloth do not fall positive.When Reverend Kapachawo learnt of his status in 2002, he told his pastor. Unfortunately, the pastor told him he had become a liability to the church.
After publicly appearing on TV airing his HIV status , an excommunication from the church followed. It was like taboo. A religious leader expected to be of the highest moral standing in community, and now appearing on TV, that was a task unheard of.
“I remember one of the counsellors of this particular group really helped me. I took her as my personal counsellor. By the time I had to go an extra step to go open about my HIV status Vis a Vis my profession, she really encouraged me. I never wanted to. And I think it took me about three months of persuasion”
The counsellor who nudged Kapachawo into televising his HIV status educated him that the TV advert would change the face of stigma on people living with the condition.
“Otherwise, by then it was like I was washing my dirty linen in public. It was like throwing your life away by declaring to the nation that I’m like this. If I had another profession, I don’t think it was going to matter so much,” he said.
Rev Kapachawo vividly recalls how he got his HIV diagnosis. It was not very long after he had graduated from Theological College that he started experiencing some illness. Kapachawo graduated from Theological school in 1997 then he worked as a pastor in Midlands, Mashonaland Central, and Harare provinces until the year 2002 when his health took a dramatic detour.
“Only in 2002 that’s when I became sick in an incomprehensible manner. It was just very complicated. You can be prayed for and have this. At that time I know I was ministering in Gweru. The most thing that affected me were my legs which were swollen that I could no longer put on shoes. They had rashes haphazardly popping up on the shin,” he explained.
These symptoms continued from 2002 when his bishop told him that he was becoming a liability.
“At times we are justified to think church is a business because as long as people don’t bring in their tithes and offerings when you are sick what do you want us to give you,” he recalls laughing the bishop’s words.
The church folk would visit him until one day his physician showed him the way out his dark painful tunnel.
“In 2002, a doctor at Chitungwiza Hospital looking at my medical history card told me that I needed to be tested (for HIV). Because to me HIV was not something…no! It never crossed my mind that this had anything to do with HIV.
“The doctor said I had to be tested citing that I had a fungal infection. I was told the only way to break this was a simple prescription of stopping sugar consumption for fungus thrives on sugar. The doctor assured me that I shouldn’t stop taking tea but oddly to us Zimbabweans, tea is sugar. Why get burnt by tea without sugar,” said Reverend Kapachawo.
The journey for Reverend Kapachawo who says after gathering guts, started at Chitungwiza Town Centre where HIV testing was done.
“The results confirmed I was positive and I could not believe it. You know I am coming from a spiritual dimension where we demonise everything but then you ask yourself, ‘Why? How?
“Because there was very little information about HIV that time worse within the church sector, it was never talked about,” he said further explaining that HIV can sustain itself within a person clandestinely for years.
The grim reaper visited his family in 2004 taking away his brother, his sister (HIV related and father who died of old age. When his siblings succumbed to HIV, Kapachawo was bedridden that he could not partake in the body viewing. People paying their condolences assumed he would join his siblings and father in death soon. People in his community could not accept the existence of HIV but thought it was witchcraft.
“There are times I say that in my family I outlived those who thought we would die anytime so that we would give a testimony,” he says.
Maxwell’s other brother could not bring himself into accepting that he had HIV which led to his suicide. The brother could not share it for he thought it would devastate his wife pregnant with their second child who was found positive at Maxwell’s instigation.
“We could not believe how he could end up committing suicide for he had a better job and a wonderful family. Those issues of acceptance played a big role,” he said.
Faced with a dual mammoth task of learning his HIV status and telling someone home, he found himself informing his wife of this new development. The wife did not accept this at first but with time she had to.
The question lingering in many people upon learning of someone’s HIV status is how they contracted the disease. To the 45 year old cleric, it’s like bothering how a snake entered a house when it should be driven out. The ‘how’ part is trivial with the most important thing is map a way forward.
The next mountain for Kapachawo was to relay the news to his Bishop. “That was the final blow to my coffin. And I think when I finally shared with my Bishop, he suddenly stopped visiting us. Here is somebody I looked up to as a father who could understand me better. That was the end,” he said.
Kapachawo crossed paths with the ignorant Bishop in 2008 and chatted for a brief moment. To Kapachawo that exchange made the Bishop appear like the biblical Judas Iscariot.
Following the formation of the Zimbabwe Network of Pastors Living and Personally Affected with HIV and AIDS (ZINERELA) in 2005, a localised version of the African Pastors Living and Personally Affected with HIV and AIDS (ANERELA), Reverend Kapachawo began the Antiretroviral Treatment. Networking with other pastors from the continent, gave him courage to tear down the walls of stigma around him especially the family.
“One has to deal with stigma at personal level first, self-stigma. The second hurdle after overcoming self-stigma is the family. The family should not decide what to do for you but support. They might talk a lot of negative things, some will say ‘We once warned you. You didn’t listen. ’ That won’t help.
“Support groups helped me deal with my family into forcing them to accept my condition. After the family stigma comes the last potion of the community which will be much easier. The community might point you at a distance but your family is with you everyday,” he said. “When the family accepts you, the community cannot do more harm. Your immediate family that is your wife or husband and children along with your family of birth comprising of siblings, mother and father have to accept you.”
He says no matter what members of the family one was born may say, this should not be as demotivating as one would be buffered with the support of his wife and kids. He says psychosocial support for people living with HIV is another medicine which if not given results in the demise of infected persons.
Churches inasmuch as they are a place of worship, provide solace. Albeit the harsh treatment received from his Bishop, Reverend Kapachawo is on record stating that churches should stop demotivating people living with HIV and AIDS. He feels there is need for pastors, reverends, bishops, and prophets to infuse HIV and AIDS in their preaching encouraging early testing, and treatment. Rev Max says it begins with the top echelons making church policies, directing church doctrine that there be an environment that embraces not only congregants but pastors living with the condition.
With the amount of power these religious leaders wield, Reverend Kapachawo is convinced that they could save as many lives. Reverend Kapachawo urged religious leaders to take HIV the same way they view non communicable diseases. He posed a question that what message do pastors who demonise HIV to people born with the condition.
To Reverend Kapachawo, congregants are more empowered with knowledge of HIV than their preachers who are still veiled in ignorance and arrogance.
“If only church leaders can loosen up and let congregants open up about the disease, they will be surprised how much they can learn of the condition,” he said.
It’s sad learning from Reverend Kapachawo’s insight that other church leaders come up with health initiatives for their followers yet they do not use them thinking they have HIV repellent bodies. Otherwise, they are indirectly affected for they have relatives and friends living with the condition or vulnerable to it.
Reverend Kapachawo is sickened by the maltreatment of HIV among his creed of religious leaders perceived as opinion leader and shepherds. He says the negative portrayal of people living with the condition infuriates him. He is more incensed by religious leaders who claim they heal HIV, worse yet those who come up with medicines that cure HIV like Prophetic Healing and Deliverance Ministries frontman Prophet Walter Magaya who pronounced Aguma.
“It’s demotivating. It’s derailing the gains we have achieved as communities. The gains we are doing as a country when such people are still living in the ‘80s where HIV started, where we did not have hope,” he says. “Where there was nothing but they are still holding on to those messages yet things have progressed to where we are.”
Most pastors still have the misnomer of HIV and AIDS.
“Until now our leaders cannot differentiate HIV and AIDS. They can’t at a time we think by now they should know these are two different things. Go to an opinion leader they will tell that someone has AIDS. I often tell people that I don’t have AIDS but HIV a condition for if I had AIDS I wouldn’t be alive.”
Reverend Kapachawo has never defaulted his medicines and this has seen him outlast those who thought he could have passed on to the other realm in 2002. Through ART, Kapachawo feels he was granted the mythical nine lives of a cat.
“Since 2005, I have been swallowing my medicines religiously. I am still on the first line regimen and my viral load for years has been undetectable,” he says.
He says testing, has been the entry point of this thousand mile journey and should be done regularly.
He also discourages stress on people living with HIV saying it drives them closer to the grave.
“People living with HIV should stop stressing themselves a lot. Of course, there may be situations in this country which could lead to stress and depression but try by all means not to let that control you,” he said.
To Kapachawo, he would not have traveled thus far living with this condition if it was not for members of the medical and counselling fraternity. Most importantly, he feels, he owes the most to his wife who if not strong for him could have left but stood by him through the grim until they both weathered the dark clouds of ailments and stigma.