Children are the future

After five years absence, this year I was finally able to visit my Motherland Burundi again. My big dream was to rejoin the school children, parents and teachers in my village Murira, part of the commune of Gihanga . I really wanted to check how the primary school children are doing as during my last visit in 2017 I realized that many of them were following lessons sitting on the floor.

While back then I was able to find a temporary solution to do a quick repair of as many school benches to have less kids sitting on the floor, the work was from finished. So that visit was the start of dignity at Schools as every child has a right to quality education! Making sure school children have access to proper means such as school benches is part of that!

This year, thanks to my partners, I was able to give a huge boost to building the capacity of the Burundian team to repair even more benches, making sure they are really sturdy to last a long time. When I arrived in Burundi, I immediately teamed up with parents, teachers and local artisans to get our work going.

While the work was on-going I asked some children how they felt to sit on the floor while they are learning and they were quick to reply ”I get back aches, and after a day my knees and neck hurt very much”, “I have trouble to concentrate” and “I cannot write well because I am using my knees as a table”. I also asked about their dreams, why they are studying hard, so Kessia told me that her dream is to become a doctor, Fanny  wants to be a singer while Chris wants to become a model. But how can they make their dream come true when they are learning in such poor conditions? Every child has a right to education, they should not sit on the floor!

In Burundi they call young Children “Burundi Bw’ejo”  which means “ Burundi of tomorrow”. We all know how important good education is for children, they are our future. So we better act very fast! And that is what we did. Together with our local team we worked very hard for the children of Murira these past weeks and yesterday the moment arrived to finish our first 50 schools benches to help at least primary school children in Murira to attend their school in dignity. 

I was so proud to see the kids’ warm smiles and joy when they received the benches. So, while we are celebrating this success, there is so much more work to do since there are still more classes without chairs and my dream is that each primary school kid in the whole of Gihanga should be able to follow education in comfort.

While we are nearing the end of 2022, I am very confident that the Gihanga team will continue to work very hard for their “ Burundi of tomorrow” beyond this year as well.  They have really shown me that they are able to do so much more, so if their story inspires you to help them out, feel free to get in touch with me!

I feel so proud of the people of Gihanga to care for their children and I want to thank everyone who supported them, wherever you are in the World. Together we are bringing positive change for the Future Generation, Burundi Bw’Ejo.

Peace,

Eliane

Unity

Each year during the first weekend of September the Airborne March, commemorating the 1944 battle of Arnhem, is organised in Oosterbeek. I did this beautiful walk for the first time in 2019, just before the corona pandemic. This year, my wish to walk once again with my neighbour and friend, Wanda and Norma, was finally granted. It was a very hot day but we managed to get to the finish. 

What really inspired me was the diversity of people during this march! Young and old people, mothers with children in strollers, people with a disability… I asked a woman of respectable age with a stroller “How many kilometers are you walking?” and she replied with determination “10 kilometers!”. I was very proud of her. I also asked a young girl how many times she joined the march and she said  that it was her 6th time already. So I asked how she did this, and she said that since she was baby, her grandparents carried her with them and that this was the first time she could walk the march all by herself! 

Overall the event is real fun, even people encouraging us along the street were very engaged. Some offered us, complete strangers, to use their toilet in their home, provided water to people and pets (yes, in the Netherlands people are dog lovers), offered fruits, sweets, and biscuits. I read a lot of appreciation of what we were doing. 

I concluded that it does not matter where you come from, you can participate no matter what you look like or in which shape you are. This day is really all inclusive and helps to unite people, both participants and spectators. Together we inspire each other to both continue to remember and learn from the past, yet also shape the outlines of an inclusive future. 

That day I learned that remembering the past does not mean only focusing on the negativity, it is also an opportunity to educate the younger generation and encourage them and apply the learning to keep making a positive impact in our communities. 

So, what if we also strive for more diversity and inclusion in our HIV community, where we still face so many issues around HIV prevention and stigma and discrimination? Where we are still struggling to reach vulnerable people that are marginalised? Let us learn from events such as the Airborne March how we in the HIV community can unite people living with HIV, onlookers, and care givers to fight HIV stigma! 

For the Airborne March I can now proudly add a wing to my medal. A win-win situation since it helps me to maintain my healthy new me lifestyle and it inspires me to keep fighting together for a stigma free world. 

Peace , 

Eliane 

Share talent, break HIV stigma 

I was honoured to be selected by IAS to participate at the 24th International AIDS Conference. AIDS2022 took in place in Montreal between 27 July and 2 August.

Let me first of all state that everyone, including me, was so disappointed that so many participants where denied visa by the Canadian Government. I was looking forwards to meet Delegates from Burundi and other parts of Africa, butso many did not make it in the end. If Governments continue to exclude delegates from countries where the pandemic hits hardest, how will we end HIV in 2030?

Now on to my time at AIDS2022. I kicked off strong right away! On the 27th of July I was a speaker on the 9th International Indigenous Pre-conference on HIV and AIDS. I was humbled to share the experiences of the indigenous (Batwa) community of Burundi. To me it is clear – all over the World indigenous people are still facing inequalities, leading to relatively higher numbers of indigenous people affected by HIV and AIDS whilst also facing reduced access to HIV education and care givers. We cannot end HIV and AIDS when we leave indigenous people behind!

Panel member of the Indigenous pre-conference

There is still much so much to do around education, awareness raising, access to health campaigns for the indigenous community. This is true at least for my home country Burundi, hence also my commitment to breaking this trend. This event gave me refreshing insights into working with indigenous people to address HIV/ AIDS and other pandemics, and planted the seeds for new  partnerships in Burundi and elsewhere.

Together with Karl Schmid from +life at the U=U Summit

My second major activity was to participate in the U=U Summit on the 28th of July where I was able to meet many of my fellow activists after so many years only communicating online. Did you know that there are still a lot of countries that are not endorsing U=U? This despite knowing that U=U is an immediate and effective response to destroy HIV Stigma  which is still a public health emergency. Again we have to keep on investing in finding the right ways to break HIV stigma!

Ready for action! The Stories of Hope stand at the Global Village

Which brings me to Stories of Hope! The main reason to be on this conference was to share my project through a 3-days exhibition at the Global Village from 29 July to 2 August . As many of you already know, Stories of hope is an initiative where  people living with HIV share their talents to break HIV stigma. The launch of Stories of Hope in 2021 was supported by EATG, and the exhibition was proudly supported by HIV vereniging through sponsoring of beautiful materials and hand-outs. Organising an exhibitions at the Global village, allowing me to meet so many activists, artists and conference participants gave me a such positive energy! I am so proud that Stories of hope has reached so many global delegates and that Stories of Hope unites us in breaking HIV stigma  by sharing our talent. 

Interacting with global delegates during the 3 days exhibition

There were so many amazing side events to still do around the conference. Just to highlight a few: I participated at the famous AIDS Conference party called “No pants, no Problem” where I performed  as  Eric the Drag King and performed a dance called “Flush out HIV stigma”. We actually managed to raise 12,000 Canadian Dollars during the event in support of HIV+ women. Eric the Drag King is another me you did not know about, right? Again another great way to share my talent to break HIV stigma. 

Eric the Drag King at No pants, no problem

I am very thankful to be part of AIDS2022. I want to extend a personal thank you to the Heroes of Hope who shared their stories during the conference; Adam, Matthew, Gloria and Faustine. And I know there are still more Stories of Hope to come from other people I met at AIDS2022. Keep an eye on Stories of Hope for more interviews and portraits!

Share talent, break HIV stigma!

Peace, 

Eliane  

Ambassador of Hope

Today we are celebrating one year Stories of Hope! And we have achieved so much since our official launch on 18 July 2021, Mandela Day. Early last year, we started Stories of Hope with two Heroes, and since then our community has grown to eleven Heroes already!

You may remember that last year we highlighted the important role that Nelson Mandela fulfilled throughout his life for vulnerable people facing stigma of any kind.

Today, on Nelson’s birthday, we are proud to share a touching interview with our friend Adam Castillejo, and a true Ambassador of Hope for the global HIV community. We do hope that Adam will also be an inspiration to all of us!

Meanwhile we are very busy preparing for AIDS2022 as next week around this time we will be travelling to Montreal. We are so excited to connect to fellow activists, role models, and so many more inspiring people.

We also set ourselves a target, namely to capture and share at least one new Story of Hope on each conference day! To make this happen, we really need YOU!

So reach out to us and visit the Stories of Hope booth GVE013 at AIDS2022!

Celebrate life

Hivstigmafighter ally Princess Mabel van Oranje

This weekend I was invited by Brandon O’Dell, director of the Amsterdam Dinner Foundation to celebrate 30 (!) years of support to the HIV community. And what a fantastic evening I had, together with the other 1,100 people supporting our common cause, to realise a world without HIV and AIDS.

Celebrating Life with people from different backgrounds is always very inspiring. I was happy to see so many Dutch celebrities that support us; Humberto Tan who also received the Amsterdam Dinner award in his fight against HIV stigma, Amsterdam’s Mayor Femke Halsema, my Stigmafighter ally Princess Mabel van Oranje who is a long time supporter of the HIV community, and many others.

During the event I also met our Ambassador of Hope Adam Castillejo, the London Patient, once again. We discussed a lot that evening and I am proud we will continue inspiring our HIV community. We have so many ideas and plans, I can’t wait to work on them together.

As this was a special edition, I was very honoured when asked to explain about what makes the Amsterdam Dinner Foundation so unique in a short video message directed at the audience. I was very pleased to highlight the Foundation’s role in connecting vulnerable people from the HIV community to people with a heart of gold willing to share whatever they can. I also brought a more serious message because, while we are doing ever better when it comes to HIV treatment, it is a shame that many people living with HIV and AIDS are still facing stigma. As HIV stigmafighter, this was my call for action: “Everybody present in this event, stand up against HIV stigma. We, people living with HIV, cannot win the battle without your help!” From what I saw, many people were touched by these words and I am glad my message is reaching more people. Just like for example my contribution to the Pozvibe podcast earlier this month.

In the end, the Amsterdam Dinner is also about making more possible ‘on the ground’. So, three important projects were highlighted. To make sure we continue our search for a HIV cure, to support the Aidsfonds in maintaining an emergency fund for Ukraine, and to support vulnerable children in Kenya who lost their parents due to AIDS. Together, the people present at the event raised a stunning 1.27M Euros. What a way to demonstrate my remark on the importance of connectness!

Roel Veltmeijer

For me, a very touching part of the evening came when Roel Veltmeijer who is living with HIV for 5 years and chair of the board of the Amsterdam Dinner Foundation, shared his personal story how HIV stigma impacted his own life. This was followed by a heartbreaking video story of a young Ukranian girl born with HIV who also shared her many challenges since war broke out in Ukraine. All so emotional and really made me cry. So much work still to be done!

Luckily our spirits were lifted by the famous Eurovison songfestival winners of 2022, Kalush, and another winner, Duncan Laurence.

Amsterdam Dinner Foundation, I cannot thank you enough for the remarkable work you have done over the past 30 years. Do continue this great work for as long as it is needed and let us work together to realise our common dream to live in a World free of HIV and AIDS.

Peace,

Eliane

One big HIV family

My lovely people, have I already told you how glad I am to be open about my status? I get to know more and more fabulous people in our HIV community wherever I go. And I love the way my HIV community keeps on growing. When we fight HIV stigma we need as many allies as possible.

In January this year I got in touch with a photographer from Dublin, Steven Doyle. He is not HIV positive, but he was a nurse in Romania during the height of AIDS epidemic in the 90’s where he worked with many children living with HIV and AIDS abandoned by their parents. Steven was taking care of them in hospitals and even adopted one of them, Nicu.

My HIV ally Steven

Eventually Nicu died at the age of 27. Ever since Steven’s work in Romania, he is vigorously fighting HIV stigma and discrimination through his activism and photography. His story moved me and we have so many things in common, see for example my story on HIV medication exchange for people living with HIV in Romania.

Inspired by Steven’s story I decided to join his project where he is collecting stories and portraits of people living with HIV all over the World. I consider Steven my newest HIV STIGMA family member.

So, in May Steven invited me and my husband for the photo exhibition in Dublin, Ireland. I was very excited and also curious to get to know the other HIV models. And I found that at least 3 of them are my EATG colleagues, what a small World!

In Ireland I was able to connect with new people like wonderful Gerry, who introduced me to the big HIV network in Ireland, for example HIV Ireland. One day he also showed us around in his family’s  magical garden where he told us so many stories about edible and medicinal plants, what an experience! He showed us the beautiful Kildare Cathedral where I learned much about Saint Brigid of Kildare, a very important Irish Female Saint. Gerry is truly doing a lot for the HIV community in Ireland.

Enjoying the photo exhibition with Gerry

And then came the surprise invitation of Robbie and the Fabulous Drag Queen Veda Lady who are the hosts of the Poz vibe Podcast for people living with HIV, their friends, family and allies. There I also met Jordie, and my ally Steven was also part of the podcast. While all our stories are unique and inspiring, we are all connected by beating our common enemy “HIV STIGMA”. We shared many tears and laughter that afternoon. Overall, through our common experiences we realised that we are heading into the right direction and that our efforts are not in vain. Talking about HIV openly is definitely the right way to normalise HIV.

Veda Lady and Robbie

Yet, I would like to say one word of caution as, to me, the migrant HIV community is still not vocal enough, whether in Ireland or my own country the Netherlands. So I do hope my and other stories will keep on inspiring them to join us.

I would like to thank Steven for introducing me to my allies in Ireland and helping the HIV community to share our stories through our beautiful faces. Also hugs and kisses to Veda Lady and Robbie Lawlor for working so hard to make sure the positive voices of people living with HIV are being heard by the World. And Jordi, thank you so much for inspiring the young and queer world to living a fabulous positive life. Last but not least, I am thanking generous Gerry for his contribution to HIV Stigmafighter’s work in Burundi!

Let us keep up the good work, the world needs more people like us. Feel welcome to join our battle because HIV STIGMA MUST FALL!

Peace,

Eliane

Going global at AIDS2022

We proudly announce that Stories of Hope will be part of the Global Village at AIDS2022 in Montreal, Canada, which will be held between 29 July and 02 August 2022.

So, nearly one year after our launch, succesfully collecting and showcasing the stories of 11 Heroes and distributing exclusive Stories of Hope postcards through various healthcare providers in the Netherlands, Stories of Hope will go global!

At the Global Village we will:

  1. Showcase three original portraits of our Heroes of Hope, and share the Stories of Hope concept with the wider HIV/ AIDS community
  2. Share sample health cards with Global Village visitors and discuss roll-out of more versions in other countries
  3. Organise rapid story telling workshops to record more inspiring stories of talented People Living with HIV/ AIDS visiting the Global Village
  4. Create new Stories of Hope to be launched during AIDS2022

If you will be visiting AIDS2022 and are interested to share your Story of Hope or want to learn more about how you can contribute to reducing HIV stigma in your country, get in touch!

My wonder woman

Being open on social media and helping different individuals can be quite a challenge sometimes. Recently I was approached by a man for information about HIV diagnosis. He claimed to know his HIV status and apparently he was exposed during sex without condom. As he knew his status (negative), he ended up forcing this woman to go for a HIV test after they already had unprotected sex.

Why? He said that he suddenly became suspicious of her. When their test result came in, it confirmed that she was HIV positive while his result was negative. This made him very angry and in our conversation, he bluntly put the blame on her for allowing him to have sex without a condom. So I asked him, “isn’t this a joint decision to do that? Why should she be blamed?”

Since I don’t know her as he does not want to put her in touch with me, I decided to write a letter to her as there are many women and girls who go through this in many places. So, here is my letter to you, my Wonder woman!

My Wonder woman

How are you?

We don’t know each other but I know your story through your boyfriend. By the way, he is a coward! First I wanted to let you know that you are not alone going through this. Learning that you are HIV positive is a scary thing, especially when you are caught by surprise. You were not aware yet that you were joined by this tiny virus called HIV. I call it “tiny” because you can beat it.

I know it breaks your heart to trust someone and you end up being blamed and dumped because of this tiny virus. But let that man and this HIV virus be the losers!

I heard that he forced you to go with him for a test and that is how you learned about your status. I am sorry you have to go through this. Your boyfriend says that he already knew his status because he does regular checks up. Then why is he so angry at you? It was his choice not to protect himself without knowing your status. Why didn’t he use a condom or PrEP? And still he wants to blame you for being Positive while he got to stay negative? What is he complaining about? He is a such idiot!

My wonder woman, I can feel your pain. You may have no one to share your secret, you may feel  darkness, scared and alone. If you happen to read my message, please come and talk to me. Don’t stay alone, because there are a lot of sisters who went through a lot and came out stronger than ever.

Wonder woman, get on medication as soon as possible. When you are on medication you will become undetectable, you cannot transmit your HIV through sex. You can continue to plan for your future. If you want you can become a mother. Your HIV is not here to stop you from chasing your dreams. Live healthy, give yourself a compliment everyday. Every little achievement in your life deserves a celebration. Continue to go out with your friends, don’t be afraid of sharing beers, laughs or hugs, HIV will not jump on them.

If you want to share your secret with someone, choose wisely with whom to share. Start with a person you trust most and see how it goes. If that person is your real friend, he or she will keep it safe and will help you in case of an emergency. And may also help you to become open about your status one day.

One more thing. Smile often, it helps to brighten your heart and spirit. I like to smile too, that is why I recommend it to you. Stigma around HIV and AIDS is still the biggest issue in our World but, once you embrace your HIV status and have a strong mind, you will fight together with others sisters and brothers in our HIV community.

Wonder Woman, don’t let HIV stand in your way! Continue to live positively, like many of us are already doing for ages . WE are strong and Powerful. I am sending my love and positive vibes to you, wherever you are in this World.

Peace,

Eliane 

Precious Powerwoman

Today we celebrate International women’s Day.

As women, how are we doing? How well are we in seizing power in a male-dominated World?

Maya ANGELOU once said:” My mission in life is not merely to survive but to thrive and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor and some style”.

If we want to fulfil her mission, we must continue to fight for equal rights for women every day. It is up to us to create a world…

Where we can thrive, where nothing will stop us from achieving our goals,

that protects our dignity with passion, and

where we show compassion, allowing no space for discrimination or stigmatisation.

Let us stay focused on our mission with humor and style!

For Stories of Hope we are proudly sharing the amazing story of young powerwoman Precious who turned her pain into courage to never let HIV stigma stand in her way. Please welcome Precious as a hero of hope!

Happy International Women’s Day 2022. #BreakTheBias

How to build confidence in a day

My lovely people, February is called by many Valentine’s month. It is considered a romantic month, and for me it is also called birthday month as it is my lovely husband’s birthday on Valentine’s day. This month we chose to celebrate his 51st birthday in Rome.

Why Rome? I grew up with in a strong catholic family with religious parents. In my youth I was a priest helper, I was part of a church dance group and I grew up with catholic values. I always believed Rome was the Holy City; As a child I did not know that the Vatican was actually a state in Rome where the Pope resided, I thought He lived in Rome and his church was called Vatican.

In 1990 Pope John Paul II visited my country Burundi. I kept very sweet memories of that and since I always fantasized of being in the Vatican one day, to see where the Pope lived. Later on, during high school we also learned so much about history and the important influence of the Roman empire and Christianity as one of the world religions with its seat in the Vatican.

But when I was told in 2003 that I was going to die because of my HIV, I thought that I would never be able to visit the Saint Peter Square in the Vatican or see the place where gladiators, like in the movie, would never give up until their last breath. So having overcome the hurdle of access to HIV medication, my WILL to visit Rome on day only increased. I really wanted to fulfill that childhood dream.

So when my husband asked me which city in Europe I wanted to visit, there was no doubt that this should be Rome. So finally, after these horrible covid times I said “darling, let’s go to Rome to celebrate your birthday. Carpe Diem!” He asked why Rome? I explained that I had been dreaming of this since I was a kid, to see where Pope lives and set my foot in the Vatican, and to tell HIV that my dreams can still come through!

The mighty Colosseum

And it did come true! We visited Rome from 10 to 15 February. First we visited the colosseum, an incredible structure, considering it is almost 2,000 years old! Only when you are there, you are able to realise what immense power these Roman emperors literally held. It is not difficult to also feel the pain and injustice done to the slaves that built it. The whole area around the Colosseum, on the Palatine hill and around the Forum, you start realising how sophisticated and hard working the common people and slaves were. Rome was certainly not built in one day, and surely not by the Romans themselves!

The Pope’s favourite chair

Then it was time for the massive and beautiful Saint Peter Basilica, the domain of the Pope. It is so impressive. We were lucky to visit the Vatican gardens with their three styles; the English, Italian and French gardens. After 12.00, once the tourists have left, this is where you will see the Pope meditate. The most touching story involved ‘my’ Pope John Paul II again, who I really kept in my memory since his visit to Burundi. We passed by a garden where he used to come daily to pray next to a statue of the Virgin Mary. Although there were many different chairs in that garden, he was not conformtable on any of them. So the gardener made a very simple seat out of a wooden log for him. And fromt that moment, when he sat in it, he felt the connection. He felt ‘grounded’, rooted to the earth and ever since it became his special seat. I was so happy to sit on that chair. It made me feel so unique!

Rome is beautiful and vibrant! It takes some time to really appreciate the city, but once you do, you see so many beautiful things. It is when you notice that each bridge over the Tiber river is special in its own way. For example, you will notice the Jazz bands playing on the Ponte Sisto on Sunday afternoons and see people taking time to enjoy life. And see me joining them, dancing, to become part of that amazing spontaneous atmosphere, ‘whipping’ others to make the whole bridge one giant open air Jazz festival!

Yes, I have seen with my own eyes that Rome was not built in one day… My acceptance of living with HIV also took what seemed millions of days to come to a point where I was able to enjoy the confidence I re-built myself. But in the end, my HIV did not become my limitation to give up on my dream to visit Rome. 

So, despite Rome not having been built in one day, NEVER forget that it only takes one day, one short moment, to enjoy life to the fullest.

Life is really too short to waste it!

Peace,

Eliane