“While I did casually date a few times, I was always clear that I’d never have sex before marriage. This is how I was raised. But it would take me meeting a guy that promised he’d marry me to change my mind.”
These are the words of Nozibele “Nozi” Qamngana-Mayaba from Johannesburg.
Seven years ago the company she worked for at the time had organised a week-long wellness programme and little did she know her life would change forever.
Nozi had purposefully avoided taking part in the sessions and dreaded the thought of having to face a dietician who’d tell her she was overweight.
But on the last day when the 29-year-old kept seeing her colleagues with goodie bags that were given as incentives for taking part in the wellness programme, she decided to put her weight issues aside and attend sessions.
Nozi marched down to the event and made it clear to the organisers that she was only there for the prizes.
But to her disappointment, the only way to get hold of a goodie bag was to take part in all the activities.
She went from gym consultants and medical aid practitioners to dieticians and eventually to the HIV testing station.
“When I arrived at the nurses I was more anxious about the fact that I wanted them to finish up because I didn’t want to be late for the meeting I was attending right after that,” Nozi recalls.
She kept looking down at her watch and phone as she didn’t see any reason to be concerned.
But instead of telling her what her results were, the nurse asked if she could do the test again. This was enough for her to forget about everything else and concentrate on what was going on.
After agreeing to a second test, she and the nurse sat quietly, waiting for the results.
She describes the wait as the longest minute of her life.
She knew something was wrong when the nurse asked her who she’d tell should the result be positive. And she couldn’t believe her ears when the nurse told her she was HIV-positive.
Nozi has always been the child parents would use as an example to discipline their children.
“I passed my matric when I was 16 years old. My academic work earned me a scholarship to university.
“This is how I became the first one in my family to graduate. While I was in my third year in university I was also able to secure myself a permanent job.
“By the time I graduated I didn’t have to worry about finding a job,” she told YOU
“I avoided anything that I thought would divert my plans to build a stable life for my family. I did everything by the book.”
This is what made it even more difficult for Nozi to come out about her status to her loved ones.
“I hid my HIV status from family and friends for years. Over time, I finally realised I needed help.
“I couldn’t face all this alone. I needed people who could support me,” she said.
She then started telling her friends, who didn’t judge her but offered her support.
“They never once looked at me differently. Instead, these are the people who woke up in the middle of the night to take my phone calls. These are the people who dropped everything to be by my side when I thought I couldn’t carry on anymore.”
“The second person I told was my brother. As expected, there was judgment, but he was simultaneously supportive and caring. But I did swear him to secrecy not to ever tell Mom.”
She was scared to tell her mother “because I thought she’d just die if I’d told her I was HIV-positive”.
"Years ago, she worked in a TB hospital and with patients who were HIV-positive. She’d come back home traumatised by how young people were dying right before her eyes and I thought me telling her I was diagnosed with HIV would automatically make her think about all those who died in front of her,” she added.
She finally mustered up the courage to tell her mom with the help of her brother.
“My mom was crying, we were both crying, and I kept telling her, ‘I’ll be fine, I’ve been dealing with this for years’.”
These days Nozi is living a full life and shares her journey with everyone who cares to listen.
She’s learnt to be “comfortable with my story”.
But she’s also battled severe depression and at one stage even wanted to take her own life.
“I often thought about how it would actually be better if I could sleep and not wake up again. This is when I started my pill addiction. I was addicted to pain killers. I’d swallow three or four pills a day so I could feel dizzy and sleep,” she remembers.
Her plan to commit suicide was stopped by an insurance policy clause.
“I’d recently bought my mom a house. The insurance policy stated that it won’t pay in cases of suicide. As much as I wanted to die, I realised I couldn’t be that selfish and leave my family without a house,” she added.
But these days her HIV status doesn’t define her and she’s now married.
“When I met him [my husband] though, I didn’t think I was ready to expose myself like that. But he was persistent. I thought I should tell him about my HIV status. I had every intention of hurting him so he could leave me alone.
“While I was telling him the story, he didn’t flinch once. He allowed me to be vulnerable and open a chapter I’d kept in the depth of my heart.
“I’ve finally come to a place where I could breathe again.”
The couple tied the knot in April last year and couldn’t be happier.
“I’ve been overwhelmed by the support I’ve received,” she says. “I’m sure of myself. I’m living with HIV. But that’s not my entire story.
“I still carry myself the same way I’ve always done. My light hasn’t suddenly become dimmer because of my HIV status. And because of that, it’s hard for people to come to me any other way. I could never give them that power, ever.”
- Nozi’s blog is called #IAMSTILLME where she shares her experiences and also gives advice to those others living with HIV.