“My name is Faira and I’m a 23-year-old mother of three beautiful children living with AIDS! It was difficult to hear myself say these words. Even when I saw the evidence on my skin and felt it in my body, the thought that I was the latest casualty claimed by this monstrous disease was hard to comprehend. I have had AIDS for eight years. At least, that’s what I think, but I have only known for two years. At the time I found out I had AIDS, I knew little about it. I did, however, know that it carried with it a taboo like no other.

Whenever we hear about a young woman with AIDS, the first thought is that she must be indecent, but it’s not true. I have always been a decent and obedient child and I have never done anything that would bring embarrassment to my family; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. I grew up in a relatively poor family and was the only girl out of eight children. I never had a chance to go to school. My father and mother produced seven boys with me emerging as the last-born. My father was a cook and my mother a housewife. We couldn’t afford basic things; even feeding the family was difficult for my father. He often had to bring home leftover food from his workplace for us to be able to eat. My mother used to say that what she lacked in material-possession God gave her in beauty-possession.

Yes, Beauty-possession -- that’s what she called me. Apparently, I was beautiful. My mother used to say so, my brothers were irritated by it, my neighbors reveled on it, and practically everyone I met celebrated it. Whenever I went to school or to the market, people would stare at me or tell me how beautiful they thought I was. It was never something that appealed to me. I never saw it as an asset that was to better my life in any way. As a matter of fact, I always had a feeling in my gut that what people perceived as my beauty attracted more trouble than it was worth. At no other point in my life was I more correct about that than when my future husband first lay eyes on me!

I remember that day quite clearly because it was a dreary day complete with rain, thunder and lightning. On my way back home from an errand for my mother, I ran into a suya-hut to escape the rain and it was there I saw him or, rather, he saw me. The very minute he locked his eyes on me, he seemed to be in some sort of a trance. He stared at me and, when I couldn’t take it anymore, I decided to bolt, brave the rain and run home. As I was running, I could hear the ignition of a car start. Not wanting to confirm that I was the reason the car was starting or whether it was following me, I sprinted home as fast as I could and hid behind a bunch of boxes till I heard nothing.

It must have been about two days after that incident that my parents called me. And as I walked in, lo and behold, there he was -- the same man that had stared at me in the suya-hut. “Congratulations,” my father said, “you are to be married to Mr Raj next week Friday”. “What,” I thought, “Mr Raj? I don’t even know him…I don’t want to get married now.” But I knew better than to voice out my feelings. My thoughts and my desires had no place in the decisions that my father makes for me. I quickly retreated to our second bedroom and proceeded to bawl my eyes out. After some time, my mother came into the room to console me: “Please don’t cry”, she pleaded. “He’s very, very rich, he’s a businessman and will help all of us. You will be important, maybe even first lady one day… You just have to make this sacrifice for all of us.” Through bloodshot eyes I looked at my mother and nodded. I knew when I was defeated.

The marriage took place amid such pomp and ceremony. Mr Raj was a very wealthy man and was considered one of the most eligible bachelors in the community. People from far and near came to see this very beautiful and lucky bride who had managed this ‘big catch’. He was tall, handsome and very lean. I often used to wonder why he was so thin.

Apart from the three beautiful children I had with him and the material needs he provided for my family, my marital life was uneventful. He spent most of his time travelling for what he termed ‘medical check-ups’. In the times he was at home, he would regularly take a cocktail of medication. Whenever I asked him what was wrong with him, he would tell me that he suffered from hemorrhoids and sinus. By the time we reached six years of marriage, the condition that even I knew was more serious than hemorrhoids and sinuses regressed so much that he became so skeletal. He was hospitalized exactly two months before his death and, in the hospital; he refused to speak to me. The last time I saw him he was very weak, he took my hands and looked into my eyes with a sincerity I had never seen throughout our marriage, and he mumbled, “Faira, I…I’m sorry… you don’t deserve this”. And then he died.

I was told that my husband died of AIDS two hours after his death. I tested positive for HIV 26 hours after his death; two of my children were declared HIV-positive 92 hours after his death, and my HIV status was upgraded to AIDS 732 days after his death. Apparently he had been diagnosed with HIV 15 years ago and was aware that he had it at the time he married me!

When Mr Raj came to ask my parents for my hand in marriage, he promised hope and a new life for a family of 10 that could barely feed themselves. But with that promise of a better life came a death sentence. I wonder if my parents would have so quickly given me away if they knew that the riches they sought came with such suffering.

I am devastated, not for myself but for my beautiful children that have to bear this nightmare also. I feel cheated, not because I have AIDS but because I was robbed of an opportunity to confront my husband before he died. Had I been able to ask him anything, it wouldn’t be why he did this; I’d ask him if he ever stopped for one minute to think about what his children faced.

It was hard for me to come to terms with AIDS, I must have been through every emotion, but to know that there is no way back, only forward, must have been my greatest obstacle to overcome. Beauty, money, paltry issues -- none of them really matters. In the end, it’s about what you make with the life you are given. As I speak to you with my heart and soul on display, instead of giving myself to the dying, I choose to give it to the living by using my voice to yell that AIDS IS REAL! For the sake of my children, I have chosen to find light and protection from within myself so that I can focus on the ray of light that glimmers in the darkness that comes with my condition. I no longer shed tears, now I shed knowledge because that is the greatest power anyone can have against this cruel, un-discriminatory disease. I guess I’m telling my story, not for sympathy but for it to serve as a lesson and a reminder of how important it is for people to have HIV tests before marriage. If the purpose of mine and my children’s life is to serve as a vessel of hope and caution to people all around the world, then, I reluctantly embrace that burden. As we witness another World AIDS Day on this 1st December, I urge every one of you to know your partner’s HIV status before marriage, not after… like me.
Hannatu Musawa

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @hanneymusawa

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