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  

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

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 

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

FIVE ways to THRIVE

This month I had the opportunity to participate in the ‘Stories from HIV Long-Term Thrivers’ forum where I gave a spoken word performance alongside an amazing and inspiring panel. The forum was organized by ViiV healthcare.

How did I give this spoken word performance? I decided to share my 5 ways to thrive! Even today, to many people HIV is still seen as a disease to be ashamed of, they consider it as a big challenge while actually you can live a perfectly happy and healthy life. Here are my 5 ways to thrive for those who missed my performance:

Trust (again)

In 2003, when a doctor told me to buy my coffin when I was diagnosed with HIV and sent me away desperate, without a prescription, I spent  a few hours thinking only about my death. I lost all confidence to live. Instead of looking for help, I started preparing my funeral. Hope started glowing when my husband brought me to another hospital for sound advice and to get my HIV treatment started. When I held my first pills in my hand, I rejoiced in taking them because I firmly believed they were going to save my life. Only after regaining trust in myself, I was able to work on my next step…

Move (my body)

My new reality made me even more aware of the importance to keep myself in shape and healthy. But what what get me going? In 2003, I wore a beautiful sky blue wedding dress and I set myself as a goal to wear it again at my 20th wedding anniversary next year. So, I decided to walk at least 10 km every day to keep me in shape and make sure for me wedding dress to fit me again. Another really important driver was for me to reduce the number of pills I am taking as I also need to take care of my diabetes. So as a huge added benefit of my daily walks I was also able to reduce 4 pills. And my weight? Well, I lost 8 kg so far, just a tiny bit to go. I like my healthy new me!

Share (my emotions)

You all know by now that I came out of the closet with a big bang! As a campaign poster girl, with my message posted all over Amsterdam. After staying with my secret for more than 10 years, sharing my story with the world was a huge relief for me and made me even stronger and more courageous. It was also a great motivator to help more people in the HIV community, for example by peer counselling and support people living with HIV on emotional well being. It also motivated me to learn ever more about HIV, related stigma and existing inequalities in the world. Last but not least, I also launched an initiative called Stories of Hope to show the diversity and talents of the HIV community worldwide.

Perform (my arts)

My greatest passion has always been to be on the stage. Since very early on in my life, I liked entertaining people. And I do so in many different ways, as a poet, through traditional Burundian dance or playing my indonongo… While I am lucky to consider my passion as my job, my key message to all of you is to work out routines, find hobbies or simply try to enjoy your job and all other great things in life. Creating and maintaining a diverse lifestyle is probably really my biggest secret to staying healthy. So, despite having gone through so much in my life, I am confidently looking forward to growing old.

Dream (my desires)

Unfortunately, in Africa people living with HIV/ AIDS are still dying. My nephew Kevin lost both his parents because of AIDS within 8 days in the year 2015. During the forum I shared my wish for a world where children like Kevin will not lose their parents anymore, where they can access health services so they can get tested and treated, and where they can grow old in good health. And right now, for Kevin I wish he can be supported to grow up in a community where he will not be stigmatised.

Yes it is possible to thrive whilst living with HIV. I, and many others in the HIV community, am an example of that. I am always proud to share my little secrets to growing old while enjoying my life with HIV! 

A bouquet of problems

My birthday month, November, had a great start by doing what I like most, giving my HIV activism a boost. Between 4-7 November I was in Istanbul for a face-to-face ‘Skills Training to Empower Patients’ (STEP-UP) and networking weekend organized by the European AIDS Treatment Group (EATG) Training Academy.

After more than a year of online training because of Covid 19, I got a chance to finally meet my fellow European and Asian HIV activists and advocates. Everyone was dying to meet and finally get to know each other more and share our experiences because in the end it is really about community voices. It was quite interesting to experience the difference between zoom meetings and ‘real’ talks together.

As we all came from different parts of Europe and Central Asia we had to speak different languages, so some were speaking English and others Russian. But in the end we all share the same goal and then language barriers can be overcome. While chatting with different people and listening to presentations, I realized that we all share what I call a “Bouquet of problems”;  Stigma, discrimination and criminalization.

During the weekend I learnt so many new insights. For example, my friends from Greece and Georgia shared with us that among people using drugs, women are way more stigmatised than men. Or that in some countries mothers living with HIV are still criminalised when breastfeeding and that they are not receiving any support from the health system to obtain baby formula or do medical checks during their breastfeeding period. 

Yet, all the new information led me to ask so many questions. For example, why are especially women still so vulnerable to attack and deliberate stigmatision? There are so many new developments and guidelines, for example on breastfeeding, there is U=U, etc. In 2021, women living with hiv should not be criminalised at all. I am telling you, no mother would wish to transmit HIV to her child on purpose!  

It shocked me to hear that there are still 130 (!) countries where people living with HIV are injustly criminalised, and in 50 countries we can be prosecuted because they have outdated laws related to sexual, but also on spitting, biting and even breastfeeding. People, after 40 years of HIV/AIDS, instead of being stigmatised we must focus our fight on removing inequalities and to demand the right to access HIV treatment and receive good medical care.

Our training was epic, there was no taboo, we talked about many topics and received useful tools that we can use in our communities. It feels like I have known this group for such a long time as we shared so many laughs, jokes and fun. It made me wonder what more we could have achieved if we could have done all sessions face-to-face instead of via zoom. I gained so many friends, which is fantastic. These moments of togetherness bring back humanity to our lives.

By Sunday, we all went back home empowered with knowledge that we will share with our community and use to convince our decision-makers and politicians to DECRIMINALISE people living with HIV!

Thank you EATG for organising the STEP-UP training and making this such an inspiring weekend, we shall meet again my Activist Friends. Keep up the fight, we are on the winning side since we DARE to speak up about our bouquet of problems!

Peace,

Eliane 

My sleepy dragon

This month Akira, my youngest son of 13 years old, and I travelled to Antwerp for a filmshoot for the ‘Undetectable equals Untransmittable’ (U=U) campaign in Belgium. Whilst in the train towards Antwerp I asked how he felt to be part of this campaign, since this was not his first time participating in campaigns related to HIV and AIDS. He was also part of the ‘coming out of the closet’ (HIV uit de kast) campaign, the short movie ‘people from the HIV association‘, the Amsterdam 2018 AIDS Conference welcoming campaign, and now U=U. Akira’s answer was; “Mom, I am proud to help out. I believe what we do is pretty cool! I hope we are bringing the message across to people so the new generation won’t suffer a lot of HIV stigma anymore”. 

At that moment, I got a flashback of when I told him about my HIV status when he was 7 years old. I wanted to take this opportunity to proudly share this with you. Back then, Akira asked me “Mama, you have a lot of medicines. Are all of them for diabetes?’’ I said ‘’No, they are for something else’’. Immediately I felt that he was ready for me to share the truth.

He asked ”What do you mean for something else?” I was prepared! I knew he liked to watch TV cartoons with dragons, so I chose to use the dragon as a synonym for HIV. I said ‘’Akira, mama has a virus. This one, it is like a dragon in my blood. He has been with me for many many years”. Akira asked ‘’Mama, does the dragon breathe fire?”. “No, because I take medication everyday. The dragon is very weak now, the medication is putting out the fire. The dragon is asleep in a corner of my blood and he can no longer play to move and dance around in my blood’’.

Then Akira asked “How can someone get a dragon?’’ I answered “Through contact with blood of someone who also has a dragon and who is not taking medication. People have the dragon in their blood, but they do not know it because they did not yet test their blood for the dragon’’. He asked again, now really excited, ”Wow mama, do I also have a dragon in my blood?’’ I said, ‘’Good question! But you don’t have a dragon, because when you were in my tummy I already took the medication every day to keep the dragon asleep, so that he could not touch you. You were born without the dragon! And now I am telling the world that my sleepy dragon does not harm me or anyone close to me! You can hug me, the dragon cannot touch you. He is sound asleep”.

He asked again “So I don’t have a dragon?” I affirmed. “But how do you feel inside? Does it hurt?” I replied that it does not hurt, but that i have to keep controlling the dragon with medication and sometimes medication can make me sick for a few days, but that afterwards I am fine again. He responded telling me “When you feel sick again, let me know, I will make you a cup of tea!’’ Then he gave me a hug and said ”I love you mom, you are my super mama!” 

After this conversation I felt relieved to see how well and easy he took this information. I guess that when you inform people with a positive mind, they will take it in a positive way and that there will be less chance of rejection. And if indeed you are being rejected, it is because they do not (yet) have an idea what you are talking about. Then, just try again and focus on a positive way to explain once more until people understand your message. This is how you will contribute to ending HIV stigma.

Raising the next generation of stigma fighters

Informing and empowering the next generation is our pathway to ending HIV stigma. If they are willing to speak up without fear, then the World will change. It is this generation that I hope will grow up to see their mothers, fathers, and any other person living with HIV to live without fear of being stigmatised.  I am proud to be raising future ambassadors and stigma fighters, together we can change the World and the change starts with us.

So far I did not regret to disclose my HIV status to my son. I am actually enjoying doing activism with him. Dear parents living with HIV, I know that when it comes to stigma around HIV and AIDS, you do everything it takes to protect your children. I have done so for many years, yet at some stage I also realised that I had to go beyond that and that I also needed to retain their trust and share my HIV story. The day I shared my story helped me also to gain more confidence and freedom to share my HIV story with the rest of World. No more secrets! I am blessed to have them in my life and sharing the truth about my life with HIV was the best present I could give them in preparation for their future healthy life choices. 

I am a proud HIV MOM 

Peace ,

Eliane 

Ageing positively

As a woman and mother living with HIV how do I see ageing?

A lot of people are afraid of ageing, yet for me it is a very exciting journey and I am actually looking forward to getting older! So, let me share with you why I see ageing in a positive way.

The whole of my adult life, only based on my appearance, people often assume I am still very young. This despite my double trouble of HIV and diabetes. In my life this has led to many embarrasing situations.

When I took my first born for her first vaccination to the clinic 20 years ago, the nurse told me to call my mother. When I told her that I was the mother of my daughter, she yelled at me ”Listen girl, don’t play with me. Call your mother, we need to ask her some questions”. This made me very sad as it reminded me of my mother who died two years earlier. So, with tears in my eyes I responded that “I AM the mom”. When she started hitting me I took out a breast, squished it and made the milk jump unto her. Calmly, I said, “Do you believe me now?” With her guilty face, not even apologizing, she finally started vaccinating my baby. That was the first time I really wanted to age and look like a mother to the people around me.

Three years later, another story happened on the 14th of February 2004 during my husband’s birthday in Luanda, Angola. We invited friends to celebrate with us at a local disco. Everyone was allowed to enter, except me! The bouncer said “You are a ‘quatorzinha’ (14 year old), you can’t enter here!” Everybody started defending me saying I am 26, married and a mother. So when we were about to leave by car, our Angolan driver greeted us and called me “boss, please get in”. The bouncer asked him if he knew me and he replied that we are a married couple. Finally the bouncer believed me, apologized and let us in. I really wanted to celebrate in this place as dancing can lift my spirit! In no time I was already back in a good mood to forget all the drama of being called a quatorzinha.

Since then there were countless times I have been mistaken for my age, hoping that when I reach 40+ things will change. But even as recent as last week, when I wanted to buy a bottle of wine in a supermarket, I still was asked to show my ID by two employees to prove I was older than 18! I told them to look deeper, that I was older than that. But they would not believe me and that without showing my ID they were not going to give me the bottle. Luckily, I had my passport with me. You should have seen their face when I showed it and when they read I am 45! They apologized and said “We are so sorry you look too young for your age!”

Over the years I have learned from these stories that instead of feeling insulted by people that misjudge my age just by looks, I should accept it as a compliment. So these days, I smile at these embarrasing yet funny moments rather than becoming angry like I used to in the past.

What is my ‘secret’ to ageing? I firmly believe that taking good care of my body and mind has a huge positive effect. I am staying in shape by walking everyday 10+ km, I love performing on stage, I am always trying to be happy when I am at home by singing and laughing out loud. This positive take on life must help I guess. And the added benefit is that I am still reducing my diabetes medication intake!

So ageing does not bother me at all. The fact that my ‘looks’ apparently do not match my age is something I now embrace rather than fight! What matters most is that while I am ageing, I also become more fulfilled, happy and healthy!

Peace,

Eliane

My Heroes of Hope

As an African artist living with HIV in the Netherlands for more than 15 years now, I continue to experience a lot of stigma and discrimination based on me being open about my HIV and my beautiful colour. I realized that for many people with a migrant background stigma is indeed still a major issue. So, in April this year I launched Stories of Hope which aims to inspire people to share their talent as a positive way to deal with and raise awareness about stigma.

On 18 July, Mandela Day, together with the other ‘Heroes of Hope’ we shared our stories with the world!

Sharing our stories on Mandela’s birthday was a perfect moment as he continues to be a big inspiration to me and the world. I have learned a lot from his life experience as a freedom fighter, reconciler, unifier and inspirer. In the spirit of Mandela’s legacy, I truly believe that Stories of Hope will give people inspiration to fight stigma and bring positive change in our communities.

Stories of Hope can be visited at www.storiesofhope.nl. My dream is that our collection will continue to grow in the Netherlands and also beyond. Please vist the website and feel free to connect me to people that would like to share their inspiring stories with us. We believe in your talent and let’s fight stigma together!

A very special thank you to the European Aids Treatment Group for supporting me to make Stories of Hope happen!

Peace,

Eliane