This women’s month we commemorate a fallen shero, writer, HIV Activist and rape survivor, Fezisa Mdibi, as she used her story to liberate many women.
By: Thanduxolo “Thandz” Buti
Even though we may be under the illusion that we are living in an age of gender equality, women still face abuse in their homes, communities and workplaces.
It seems a week does not pass without social media being hogged by headlines of another case of gender-based violence or the name of another victim of femicide.
It is clear that rape is one of the most imminent threats hanging over women’s shoulders like an invisible vulture. Despite women now holding high positions in office and running multi-million dollar companies, they still live in constant fear because of their bodies.
This women’s month, the death of Rhodes University student Khensani Maseko (23) was another harsh reminder that women are under threat. Khensani ended her life after being raped by a fellow student. She joins the long list of women whose faces have been splattered across newspapers after being prey to yet another man.
While some of these women’s lives are sadly cut short, others survive and rise above the horror on a daily basis. Fezisa Mdibi was one of these women.
Fezisa was a famous activist and writer who sadly died in 2016. She was raped at 15 by a family friend and again one year later by a well-known thug from Margate, in Durban. The latter resulted in her being infected with HIV at the age of 16.
She bravely went on live TV and radio in 2009 to disclose her HIV status, while it was still very much a stigmitised disease.
After disclosing her status, she became an activist, penning articles to educate the masses about the disease. Her pieces were published in popular publications, locally and internationally. These included The Daily Maverick, Mail and Guardian and The Guardian (London). She was also famous for her blog Fezisawrites@wordpress.com which raised awareness about HIV/AIDS and Rape.
This women’s month I revisit an interview I did with Fezisa, a year before she passed. I chose it because I believe her story represents the many stories of women across the world who have been abused but refused to let their spirits be extinguished.
You waited ten yours before you opened up and started living your truth. What compelled to take that brave step?
Fezisa: In 2009 I got a scholarship to go and study in India and they wanted a health clearance certificate, and that also included an HIV test. I went to a doctor and asked him to write a note not disclosing my status and I got the clearance and went to India. Four months later I found out that the University tests the foreign students and if you found to be positive, you get kicked out. After the discovery of my status I was kicked out and I tried to get ambassadors to get involved but their hands were tied. They also had to respect the policies of the country. I came home very angry and I need to channel that anger and that’s when I decided to talk about my status.
Many people talk about the dark journey that awaits one after finding out that they are positive. It’s always seen as a death threat. Did you also see it as a death threat?
Fezisa: Yes, because back in 2001, HIV was all about death. The person who tested me gave me atleast five years to live and I was just sixteen. It was hell after that. But then it gets better once you begin to see that nothing is really happening and you [are] still you and very much alive.
Did you go through the process of depression and denial?
Fezisa: Well, I was also diagnosed with bipolar [disorder] and I was on medication for a while. But, medication used to make me feel like shit. It completely erased my feelings. I was numb. So, I stopped.
Maybe it was a misdiagnosis. I haven’t taken the medication since 2011 and I am completely fine. I am not really an expert in that field but with a change in my mentality I became fine. I think also I was just gravely depressed from the rape and being diagnosed with HIV, and I was just a teenager, I was not equipped to deal with such a heavy load.
All I remember was that I had completely alienated me from the rest of the world. I would just lock myself up in my room. My mother was the one who thought I had Bipolar [disorder] and so she sent me to psychiatrist. However, I put myself in a trap because I went in there already having diagnosed myself. He asked me about ten questions and then prescribed the medication.
I share my story because when I was still in the early stages of dealing with HIV, I wish there was someone like me.
What would you say was the moment when you were able to break away from that state and begin to see the light?
Fezisa: The weight got off my shoulders when I appeared on E-TV News and I had a whole segment where I just spoke about me and my ordeals. For years it was as if everyone could see through me, that I was hiding something. The moment I told my story I became free. As soon as I told my story I got a tidal wave of support and messages. I realised then from other people sharing their stories with me that there are people who are going through the same thing and some of their ordeals were worse than mine. The only time that I really felt the sanctions that comes with being HIV was when I was kicked out of India. Once I put it out there, it became so much bigger than me. It kicked off my healing process.
So, telling your story drove you to the path of enlightenment about the disease and enabled you to hear other people’s stories?
Fezisa: Yes, I got a lot education about reactions, interactions and coping mechanisms when it comes to the disease. We think we know HIV but we don’t because the pamphlets only cover a small portion of information about the disease.
What made you want to create a platform where you able to create awareness about HIV and rape?
Fezisa: I started researching about it and the more I discovered, the more I realised that I must share this information. I chose writing as my medium because it was easier and it was also effective.
In your writing about the pandemic what have been some of the most astonishing things you come across?
Fezisa: You know, it was shocking to discover that the mainstream rarely wants to disclose the whole truth about HIV treatments. They don’t want to be associated with the unconventional ways or alternative ways of making sure you are able to stay healthy.
What would you say now is your intention with continuing to share your story?
Fezisa: I share my story because when I was still in the early stages of dealing with HIV, I wish there was someone like me. I also want people to question more and not just take whatever they are being fed in regards to the disease. My intention is spark a dialogue and also raise questions.
What is the most inspiring story you have heard from your interactions with other people living with HIV or rape survivors?
Fezisa: I have so many stories but there was a girl I met at Cool Runnings, in Johannesburg. She just pulled me aside and told me that I had saved her cousin’s life. Her cousin had a growth in the neck and she was taking pills but they were not helping much. She told her cousin to follow me on Twitter and Facebook and do whatever it is that I am doing because I would update about how I stay healthy. She really got emotional and told me that she was now healthy because of me. That is just one of many. I have had people pull me aside and tell me how my story helped them see that there is life beyond HIV.
Lastly, what would you say to someone who is currently walking the path that you walked?
Fezisa: I would tell them it’s not the end, it’s the beginning. It’s also important to find support because it’s a tough journey and you need people or someone to lean on.