It’s world AIDS day and, although AIDS continues to kill people and people living with hiv/ AIDS continue to face inequalities, there is a growing number of stories of hope.
This week I met two more people cured of HIV. While they highlighted how they experienced love from others whilst battling cancer and living with hiv, they also received hate and judgement. Stigma is still a big issue. Yet, their stories fill us with hope; that one day we will end hiv and AIDS, and that we must begin our journey by ending stigma and inequalities based on gender, income and race.
While conveying their message of hope, I am also very proud to contribute to the fight against inequalities by sharing two new stories of hope today. I know that Anna and Perry will inspire you with their own stories about overcoming hiv stigma by using their talents.
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!
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.
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!
Whilst we are nearing the end of a rainy summer, I would like to reflect on my summer time. It was actually very enjoyable no matter how I look at it! It started excellent by hearing news from my diabetes doctor that I was allowed to stop 3 more pills of my medication.
Then there was Mandela Day on the 18th of July where we shared our Stories of Hope through a photo exposition, and I had a great celebratory closing party with my heroes!
A few days later I celebrated my kids’ birthdays which all of you know happen for all three of them within 4 days! My oldest daughter turned 20, one of my sons 15 and the other 13. What a blessed week for all of us.
Then we took off for a few days in the South of the Netherlands, Maastricht. What a beautiful place and surroundings. It was a short stay but full of sportive activities as I like to keep my Healthy New Me in shape! We walked hills, went into caves which still made me accomplish my sports targets every single day during my holiday! And on top of that we went one day on an (e-)bike and mounted some impressive hills with equally impressive names like the Dead man’s alley (Dodemansweg in Dutch). I was so proud to be able to get to the top of these hills and admire the incredible view. Who says Holland is flat?
Despite the many showers it was real fun to cycle together and sometimes get surprised by a shower and hide under a tree, still ending up wet because of the drops getting through the leafs. We never gave up, no matter how the weather wanted to stand in our way. It was a truly memorable time in Limburg.
Back in my hometown, I was just on time to join Amsterdam Pride. It was my lucky day because on many years whilst in the Netherlands, Pride week would always happen when I am on holidays abroad, so this time I could attend for the first time! Joining the Pride as part of the BI plus walk and wearing my HIV stigmafighter t-shirt and U=U bandana also allowed me to spread the message of UequalsU and to fight HIV stigma.
Being part of the Pride helped me to convey these two messages to a few more people. It felt great joining so many activists and LGBTQ+ communities in march. I keep on dreaming to one day see people in my country Burundi wave the Rainbow flag like here!
Beautiful people, Do not let the fear of corona conquer your life! As long as you try to stick to the rules, it’s ok to have a little fun. We really should accept for us to live with corona for many years to come and start adapting to the situation, dealing with it just like we have dealt with many other pandemics.
Nelson Mandela once said that “A WINNER IS A DREAMER WHO NEVER GIVES UP”. Who know one day we will win this battle? keep on fighting for change!
I had a great, fruitful and memorable summer of 2021.
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!
My lovely people, can you explain to me why white people coming to Africa are quickly called “experts”, but people of African descent in Europe are often called “refugees, migrants, or illegals”?
After I married my husband, in the different countries in Africa we lived in I became the “expert’s wife”, Mrs. Becks. Although I always felt this title to be wrong, at the same time at all these places I was also recognised for my talents as an artist and appreciated as a human being, part of society.
The ugly divide that the color of a skin can cause became evident to me in South Africa… I was 29 by then and I just bought my first house in Pretoria. Still, whenever a white South African appeared at our gate, for example for a delivery, I was always seen as the cleaning lady working for the landlord. Why? Because black women were supposed to be doing cleaning jobs in the suburb where we lived. They simply could not believe that I owned that house. So many times they refused to hand over my package, arguing they were only allowed to hand it over to the home owner! You should have seen their shock once Mrs. Becks showed her ID to them.
So, when we moved to the Netherlands, my husband kept his expert title, and me? From the cleaning lady I became the migrant, refugee or illegal. I was shocked to be labelled so strongly by so many in my adopted home. Mind you, I am proud to be called an African migrant, and I am really not bothered when people think I am a refugee as it is not a crime being a refugee.
But I am amazed by the prejudice that is part of these simple words. Despite me being Dutch and contribute to our economy through my business for more than 10 years now, you will be surprised at how quickly people are able to make up their mind about you, only based on the color of your skin!
But I am not harsh to them, a mistake can be made, right? But what bothers me is that still many people, instead of facing the truth, start a rant about that they are allowed to say what they think as they have ‘freedom of speech’. And to make matters worse, start pointing out the fact that I am not originally from this country and that I should know my place. Really?
An extreme story to illustrate this is one time when a dog was barking furiously at me. And the owner of that dog was getting very angry at me and told me in my face that I made her dog behave aggressively because I was black! I was speechless, but luckily my husband was with me and told the woman: “Does the dog see people in color? Only people see each other in different colors, for a dog every person is alike”.
Back to the expert/migrant issue; In fact we are both migrants as 1) my husband is not originally from Amersfoort and 2) his great grandfather settled in the Netherlands from Germany. So if you dig deep enough, you may discover that your roots are also somewhere else. And on being an expert, my talent is to be living for more than 18 years with HIV now, and I am also the first female in the World to play my Indonongo. So even if people try to label me, I know who I am and I am very proud of myself!
People may judge me based on the color of my skin or my African surname, but my actions always speak for themselves! So let’s all agree to love each other for the way we are and focus on using our talents to make this beautiful country an even better place. I thank all Dutch people who are giving their everything to make this happen, especially my lovely husband whom I love dearly.
In May 2014 I finally told my secret; I published a note called ”The Hidden truth” on facebook to inform everyone about my HIV. I had been thinking about coming out of the closet for many years and that day I was ready to share my reality and prepared to face a storm of reactions.
Before coming out I told a few friends, neighbours and parents of my kid’s friends. Why did I do that? I was creating my small safe haven, in case the world would turn its back on me. So I was assured that these people would hold my hand and support me!
Back then I was not sure what reaction I would be getting, but in the end I received a lot of supportive responses. Some people called me, others wrote messages calling me a strong and courageous woman, thanking me for sharing, telling me they love me, and reassuring me I would still be the great dancer and remain who I was.
Then Hello Gorgeous, a Magazine for people living with HIV, approached me if I wanted to share my story as a HIV talent. So in the 2014 autumn edition I became a cover girl for that magazine. I decided to use the magazine cover as my facebook profile picture.
This is when the troubles at my kids’ primary school started; a parent went to tell the director of my HIV. He asked me to remove the picture, he said ”You scare the parents!”. I told him that if parents have questions, they are welcome to ask me. I added that I could change my facebook profile picture but that the truth would still be out there, in the magazine and online!
That’s when I handed him a copy of the magazine. He looked inside and saw me posing with my Indonongo and said ”You look happy and strong!” I said “That’s exactly my point! Have you ever seen me unhappy? I came to this school with HIV but I did not tell you. There are other parents with secrets as well. I am out of the closet and please don’t tell me to hide again!”
But some parents did not give up yet! A few days later a teacher told me “Mrs Becks, I am sorry to tell you that parents are very worried that your son is going to infect the whole classroom”. I was furious and asked “ Are you seriously thinking that my son is going to infect your classroom including yourself?”
To my surprise he answered that he was afraid that was going to happen. So I told him that first of all he does not have HIV and secondly even if he would have it, how is he going to transmit it to you and the other kids? Is he going to have sex with you all, is he going to breastfeed you or is he going to inject drugs and share a needle with you? By now he was begging me not to be angry, and said he needed to ask this so he could answer those parents.
I was like, well you got your answer. But since it is HIV you are trying to push me and my children down. I will NOT allow it! Tell those parents, whoever has a question, to come to me and we will talk. Shame on you as teacher, not making an effort to look for basic information on HIV. And you are hiding behind the parents while you are afraid yourself.
You all thought this would be the end of it, right? Well, things just got started… Very soon after this, teachers started reporting to us that one kid was suicidal and the other was uncontrollable and was continuously hitting other children. So all of a sudden they had mental issues? But as the school already reported this to the social care system, we were now labeled a dysfunctional family thanks to this school. This unleashed an army of social care ‘specialists’ towards us. I can tell you, there is no way to keep them out of your door and you are guilty until proven innocent!
So, we went through a very stressful period of observations by psychologists, dozens of talks with social caregivers, and hundreds of forms/ tests to fill in. All this to discover if my husband and I were evil. Guess what? They found nothing! And all we got from the school was a simple apology for the misunderstanding…
I felt really down for suddenly being treated as a bad mother, whilst I have always been so active for the school helping them out with many activities including making music. The moment I came out, all went down the drain! That period in 2014 I had to stand tall and fight tooth and nail against this bigotry. But I showed them that no matter what kind of box they tried to force me into, I did not fit!
My secret was out, and nothing was going to stop me now! Luckily my safe haven did its work. Of course, some parents were fully understanding and to date my kids are friends with many of their children.
It is not easy to fight stigma and discrimination, and when it comes to my children I will do anything to protect them. In the end the drama caused by school and the army of caregivers stopped and we walked free after our long fight!
I am glad I came out and I did not regret my decision!
Hello my lovely people. It is always great to have something to keep you positively busy during these strange Covid times. So I am very excited to share a new initiative called stories of hope with you. I will be leading this for the coming 4 months.
Just a little background: I was lucky to follow the STEP- UP training organised by the European AIDS Treatment Group (EATG). Together with many other HIV activists and advocates I gained a lot of extra knowledge on HIV. EATG also gave us the opportunity to pitch a project we are passionate about and I decided to share my dream of reaching out to people living with HIV with a migrant background with them.
And guess what? My project was selected and I received a small grant to launch stories of hope! This is such a great opportunity because as HIV stigmafighter I dare to speak out against anyone who stigmatises or discriminates people in my city Amersfoort, the Netherlands and Worldwide.
I love Amersfoort and during my time here, I experienced stigma from healthcare providers, people on the street and employers. It happens everywhere, right now! So I want other talented people that never let stigma stand in their way to join me and inspire people still facing stigma today.
My journey will start in Liendert, an urban area with more than 7,500 people of which 52% has a migrant background. I want to reach out to them and provide a safe space for them to process and share stories related to stigma in our community. Through my partners Het Huis van Bartels, a green oasis in the heart of Liendert, I will work with people with a migrant background and tap into their unique talents to open up and share their story.
And I have evidence this works! What would I have done without my talent as an artist? It helped me to accept my hiv status and focus on positive messages of hope for the hiv community. Even before I was diagnosed with hiv I already shared my talents and I realised that hiv did not change who I am. Through the support of organisations such as hello gorgeous, hiv vereniging and many others, I regained my identity and came out stronger than ever before. Now it is time for me to take action and inspire change in my community.
And you can be a local hero too! If you like my poster, get in touch and join my growing pool of talents through your own poster!
Why do many of us still underestimate the value we bring, why do we struggle to embrace our unique feminine leadership strengths, and why do we remain silent and let our rights be violated?
You are born with superpowers, let your abilities and achievements speak for themselves. Stand up now, start owning our power. Challenge other women when they disempower themselves, call out bias, and question stereotypes.
Your voice matters, celebrate women’s achievements. So, strike the #ChooseToChallenge POSE during International Women’s Day on 8 March 2021 and help us to forge an inclusive world!