A decision by a group of schoolgirls to earn their bragging rights by testing for HIV turned into a nightmare for one of them when she was diagnosed HIV positive.
At 14 years old, this was a bitter pill to swallow for Saidy Brown, but today she cherishes the day she found out.
Almost eight years later, Brown has turned it into a positive story and she intends to use it to help others change their attitude towards HIV.
“Yes, I am HIV positive but don’t call me a victim. I am a victor. I don’t view it as a sickness ... it is just something that’s is in my blood and manageable.”
With her trademark smile, she said she would never forget the day it all started.
“I was born HIV positive, but I never knew until that day when I went out on a school trip to a Youth Day event in Lichtenburg, North West,” she said.
While at the event Brown, who is from Itsoseng township, and her friends decided to get tested. For young girls who had not been sexually active, they were all confident of the results. One at a time, they came out with bright smiles painted on their faces.
Minutes later, Brown emerged desolate from one of the small tents where she had just tested. She took lazy steps towards her friends and with a depressed face and let out a bolt from the blue.
“I’m HIV positive,” she said.
In seconds, she observed jaws dropping. Her friends were dumbstruck.
“Relax you guys, I am kidding. I am HIV negative,” she said, and that led to a instant change of mood .
Brown recalled joining her friends who were jumping around ecstatically in celebration of the negative status when she had absolutely nothing to celebrate. All she had were so many questions raging through her thoughts with no answers.
“I thought it was all over for me. My understanding of HIV was that once it’s diagnosed, you get sick and die ... I went home and waited for it,” she said.
Seven years later, she posted a tweet that earned her instant attention worldwide: “When I found out at 14 that I was HIV positive, I did not think I would live to see 18; I am turning 22 this year.”
“I am here today because I decided to take control of my life and not allow the virus to dictate over me.”
Brown said, because she needed a distraction, she joined a drama group.
Later in the year as World Aids Day approached she took part in a play about HIV, and decided to disclose her status to her aunt. But her aunt wasn’t shocked. She said it was possible because both Brown’s parents, who are dead, were HIV positive.
“I started taking medication three years later when my CD4 count deteriorated. I went public, disclosing my status to friends and on social media when I was 18.
“I was not doing this to attract attention. I accepted my status first and then decided on a mission to make a difference in lives of those affected by the virus and province some ray of hope. With the right attitude we can all be victors.”
She also remember not being offered counselling when first tested.
“What I got instead from the lady was ‘what would you do if you find out you are HIV positive?’
“I said I don’t know and she went on and gave me the bad news and that was it,” she said.
She said she believed that HIV-positive individuals didn’t need pity and sympathy but genuine support. “We need to find psychological and physical strength from the people and atmosphere around us and not to be mocked by nurses and others who make us feel like we have sinned and are worthless; just some patients waiting to die,” she said.
After her tweet, Brown was plunged into the seat of a motivator, responding to hundreds of questions from around the world, especially after an interview with the BBC.
She responded to a tweet asking how one should support a relative who had just being diagnosed as HIV positive.
“Just try to reassure them that they are loved regardless. Go with them to the clinic if they don’t mind,” she responded.
Brown has some good answers, even for those who seemed not to understand her story correctly. One tweet in response to her post was: “That’s what you get for having sex at 14.”
She responded: “HIV is not only transmitted through sex. Educate yourself.”
She said it had not been easy for her but she managed to make it through the odds.
“I was expecting to have already died by now but here I am standing confident and ambitious. Like any other youthful person I want to go to university, earn a degree and work. Nothing will make me happier than being there for those living with HIV,” Brown said.
She said she hoped to live longer and continue to de-stigmatise the virus.
“I really want those living with the virus to look at my story and draw motivation for those who are feeling worthless ... there is live after an HIV diagnosis. Trust me, it has not been easy but here I am.”