A toy saved my life

My life has been shaped in many forms, so my memories are sometimes triggered by sounds, pictures, food or even some trees. I never knew that a toy could save a life, even more than once. So I would like to share the story how my daughter’s toy saved me during the first years of my HIV diagnosis.

I must have told this story many times now during my HIV education at schools, in communities in the Netherlands and with the Batwa in Burundi. In French it is said “Les Paroles s’envollent mais les ecrits restent” which means “Spoken words don’t last but those written stay forever”. I choose to write my story down so that many people may read it. I find it funny to share.

After my diagnosis in November 2003 in Luanda, Angola, I did not have access to my HIV treatment. The Doctor officially declared me death by her words “You are going to die, you are not allowed to have children. Better go buy your coffin!” She sent me home without prescription. Like that I was on the street without medication, without hope. It took us time before my husband found a contact in South Africa for my treatment. I was so scared , I had many nights full of nightmares.

It finally happened in December, three weeks before Christmas. I got good news that I was going to Pretoria for HIV treatment. I was very excited to sit in that plane to South Africa. We stayed in the Hatfield area in the Protea Lodge, a very lovely place. But I could not wait to be at the Louis Pasteur hospital to meet Doctor Lewis for the first time. He was very kind, he answered all my questions and made me feel I was not a monster. I got out of his office with a prescription and a big smile.

I did keep in mind though what I had experienced many times at Luanda International Airport; They would search us everywhere, pockets, bags, and there was even a special lady who would take you to a room to check in your underwear if you did not have diamonds or too much money. So I was worried that the moment I would reach Luanda I would be caught with 3 months worth of medication. If caught, I would have gone to jail or be banned from entering Angola or even get killed immediately. I had to find a suitable solution of hiding my medications as good as possible.

So we went to Hatfield Plaza where I took my favouriet drink Amalura coffee, eat garlic snails with garlic bread to enjoy the sunny afternoon and try not to worry too much about my return to Luanda. So I came up with a plan: I went to a sport store and bought three big water bottles and filled each of them with my 3 months supply of medication. Most of my HIV medication needed to stay in the original package and to be saved in fridge, but that was not my concern for that moment. I needed them to reach my home in Luanda without being caught.

I can tell you, I was lucky to have a 2.5 years old daughter who had a beautiful baby doll named ‘Keza ” which means Beautiful in Burundian Language. It was a talking doll that would start crying when her dummy would fall out. So I hid my bottles of medication between toys and nappies in my daughter’s small trolly bag, and on top I put Keza with the dummy still in her mouth. I packed it in such a way that when they would open the bag, the dummy would fall out and Keza would cry like a real baby.

Loris and her Toy Keza

And so it happend at Luanda airport: The customs officer opened the bag and Keza started crying in front of him. He was visibly shocked, yes even scared. And I pretended there was nothing dangerous in the bag and said ” Oh, here are only the toys of my daughter”. He said “Oh, please stop that crying baby I am getting crazy already! Close your bag and get out of here”.

What a magical moment! I was free to go. We repeated this every three months, and every time I went through the search my heart was beating FAST and LOUD, like BATIMBO ( Burundian drummers ) of Burundi. I was lucky enough to meet different custom officers, so they never discovered my trick with crying Keza to avoid serious interrogations. I was happy to finally move to Pretoria where I started my new project of having a baby since I was three years on successful treatment. Long live KEZA, you saved my life!

Thanks a lot, and thank you my daughter to help carry that bag even if you did not know mama’s trick! I am thankful to you too!

Peace , Eliane

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