BORN in Kopa village in Mpika some 40 years ago, Silvario Kanjela first met 31-year-old flight attendant and beauty advisor Theresa Nyangu in 2004 at a bakery in Lusaka where she was working as a cashier.
Ms Nyangu was always busy attending to customers, including regular ones like Mr Kanjela whenever he was in the bakery. But their faces were familiar to each other.
Two years later, Mr Kanjela, who is a self-employed electrician, met Ms Nyangu again. But this time around it was at Shoprite Checkers on Cairo Road in the central business district of Lusaka. They engaged in a conversation and later exchanged contact details.
Before that, Ms Nyangu used to regularly test for HIV. She had even convinced her then partner to undergo voluntary counselling and testing. But when they did the test as a couple, the results came out confusing – she tested positive while her partner was negative.
A dark cloud hung over her.
With that, she was scared of continuing the relationship, and so she ended it and concentrated on keeping herself busy, seeking medical advice, taking drugs and staying healthy.
“I remember being disappointed with myself. I didn’t know what to do. I thought with the virus, I would stay alone forever,” Ms Nyangu recalls. “I was living in fear and did not want to infect my partner, so I called off the relationship.”
But when she met Mr Kanjela, things changed.
“I felt loved again,” she says.
But while Mr Kanjela would talk about marriage, Ms Nyangu would not be interested. She was suffering inside, not knowing how to tell the man who loved her that she was HIV-positive.
The moment came, and it was on a Sunday afternoon.
“I had no better way than just to reach for my handbag, got the two bottles of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) and showed him, [and] without any word, I looked straight in his eyes,” she recalls.
While Mr Kanjela accepted the situation and was ready to marry Ms Nyangu, it was not the same with his circle of family and friends. There was no way they were going to accept an HIV-infected woman.
“Initially, everyone was happy with my [now] husband when they heard that he was ready to marry. But when they heard he was marrying an HIV-positive woman, everyone vanished,” Ms Nyangu recounts.
But Mr Kanjela and Ms Nyangu accepted their situation, and underwent counselling on how they could live together. They later married on April 14, 2010 at Lusaka Civic Centre.
In medical terms, you would call such a relationship Serodiscordant, which is also known as magnetic or mixed status – one in which one partner is HIV-positive and the other is negative. This is in contrast to a Seroconcordant relationship in which both partners are of the same HIV status.
There are many people who are in serodiscordant relationships.
Infectious diseases specialist at the Adult Centre of Excellence at the University Teaching Hospital in Lusaka Lottie Hachaambwa says there are serodiscordant couples who live for a long time without the HIV-positive partner infecting the negative one.
However, he says what is killing such relationships is mainly stigma and lack of counselling.
“Accepting the diagnosis and feeling good about oneself will help with informing partners about their HIV status and how to deal with it in a relationship,” Dr Hachaambwa says.
“If you are in a mixed status relationship [serodiscordant], you can reduce the risk of transmitting HIV by getting on ARVs and the use of condoms can reduce the transmission of the virus.”
Indeed, being in a serodiscordant marriage may bring additional worries about things like stigma, how a couple will have children and how the infected one may reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to the negative partner.
But like Mr Kanjela and Ms Nyangu have proved, such couples can have a successful marriage and live a healthy life for a long time as well as have HIV-negative children.
It is the stigma which has to be fought.
Stigma can indeed hinder the fight against HIV, making people feel isolated and not able to share their struggles.
In the case of Mr Kanjela, he was left to make marriage negotiations on his own because his family, friends and pastor at his church refused to give him support.
But like Dr Hachaambwa advises, HIV-infected individuals can be married and even have babies that are free of the virus as long as the infected mother adheres to her prescribed medication.
“If you and your partner want to have children, then you will need to discuss the methods of conception available to you,” he advises.
“The presence of HIV should not be a hindrance to people’s happiness of having children. It is just unfortunate that our society associates HIV with prostitution and that is why we experience stigma from friends and family.”
Dr Hachaambwa further advises serodiscordant couples to choose less risky sexual behaviours to prevent the transmission of the virus to the negative partner and to consistently and correctly use condoms. This keeps the lines of communication open and enables the infected partner to freely talk about HIV prevention.
Indeed, Ms Nyangu was initially reluctant to go into a new relationship, but after undergoing counselling, she knew she could fall in love again and it was safe to have sex, provided she always used protection.
Today, Ms Nyangu, who has been on ARVs since 2009, is a mother of two HIV-negative children. Mr Kanjela has also remained HIV-negative.
They are indeed a perfect example of how two people who love each other can happily live together in the face of HIV.