Tapiwa's Story-by Brenda Jansen

Tapiwa’s story is not finished yet

She held tightly to her walking frame on wheels, taking each step with care as she came to meet me. My first impression of "Tapiwa" was made by her smile and the warmth in her eyes. However, as she began sharing her life’s story, her smile left her face, and her eyes revealed much sadness.

At the age of eighteen, Tapiwa’s life changed dramatically when her mother died and her father sent her and her five siblings away. Soon afterward, perhaps in search of love and daily survival, she got married and became pregnant, giving birth to a daughter named Isabelle. Sadly, she then learned that her husband was not faithful to her, having had sexual relationships with many other women. The STI’s (sexually transmitted infections) he passed on to her, and the loss of trust, motivated her to divorce him. She chose to return to school with hope for a brighter future. However, she was unable to give her studies the focus needed, and she failed her exams.

At the age of twenty-three, she got married again, hoping to begin a new life. She and her husband got jobs at a local “health training center”; he worked as a health surveillance assistant, and she was a research assistant doing two nutrition studies. She felt she had the beginning of a stable family life at that point. However, the emotional pain leftover from her previous marriage made her cautious about having children with this husband. After observing the kindness he showed to Isabelle over two years, she agreed to have a child; their son, Henry, was born a year later.

When Henry was one year old, Tapiwa began getting sick, having unexplained rashes and fevers. She became aware of her husband’s reckless living, including “womanizing, drinking, and sleeping in beer halls”. She feared that he might have passed HIV to her, so she made the decision to get tested. Her fears were realized when she was told she was indeed positive. She had her children tested too, learning then that little Henry had also been infected with HIV.

Tapiwa was unable to afford the AIDS medications (ARVs) at that time, for it was before the Malawi Government provided them for free to hospitals and clinics. She became sicker and, a year later, was diagnosed with Tb (tuberculosis). She went through Tb treatment, but it failed, because her immunity was too weak.

Her husband continued his wild behavior, though his wife grew sicker by the day. He was even caught in adultery with another man’s wife. He narrowly escaped being killed by her husband in a fit of rage. Though a village chief was consulted, he was not willing to intervene, so Tapiwa informed her husband’s employer who helped them relocate to another town. Though he could have taken the opportunity for a fresh start, her husband continued in the same pattern of sexual immorality there.

One day, a nurse at the health center where he worked noticed how sick and frail his wife and young son had become. She arranged for a visiting doctor to come and examine them the next day. He recognized the seriousness of their condition and recommended that they begin ARV treatment immediately. He explained to them that there was serious risk involved; he would normally address their other infections first, but they may not live long enough without the ARV treatment. In fact, he told her that she had a 50/50 chance of survival.

Both Tapiwa and two-year-old Henry began their fifteen-day starter pack of ARVs. On day four, Henry complained of pain in his stomach. This continued for the next three days, and very sadly, he died on day seven. Tapiwa hadn’t prepared her heart for this, so the shock was followed by intense grief and depression. This was complicated by pain in her head, side and feet, perhaps side effects of the ARVs. She was physically and emotionally unable to care for her daughter, Isabelle, so she sent her to live with her sister.

Tapiwa’s husband provided a little money for food, but wasn’t around to really care for her needs. Instead, he continued in his careless behavior, staying out late each night. After a month or so, Tapiwa felt even sicker, so she phoned her sister for help. She came and brought Tapiwa to her home, and then to the hospital three days later. She was diagnosed with Tb (again) and meningitis. She slipped into an unconscious state, and remained that way for four days.

When she woke up, she was unable to move. She was confused and unable to remember things. She went through Tb treatment again, and began a slow, tedious process of recovering her strength. After three months and some physical therapy, she could get to a sitting position. It took much patience and determination from her and the caregivers to work toward each milestone. She had many setbacks along the way, including a serious bedsore that remained for a year, and a period of vomiting that lasted 4 months. Though extremely weak in body, she had the drive to face each day, never giving up.

Her husband visited her after a while, and she could see that he was not healthy. She encouraged him to get the medical help he needed, but he refused. His brother tried to convince him as well, but failed. His choice to deny his status and refuse help eventually cost him his life.

Tapiwa is now a patient at Partners in Hope and is much stronger and healthier. They have provided a modern walking frame which enables her to be more independent. She is making progress with the help of her physical therapist who clearly loves her, and she has regained the weight she’d lost. Life has dealt her some big blows, but she has pressed on. She’s not a quitter. On the contrary, she talked about her desire to live on her own, to have some kind of employment, and to support her teenage daughter again, evidence that she has hope for her future. Tapiwa’s story is not finished yet.