When Samson Njolomole came to campus last Monday, April 7, he spoke to a crowd of about 100 students interested in his work as the External Relations Manager of Partners in Health in Neno, Malawi. Njolomole began his speech with the revelation that he was HIV positive. The audience, of course, responded with respect; yet, in his home in Malawi, this may not always be the case. Rather than compassion, many HIV positive individuals are shown contempt and possibly even shunned by their community. There is a prevailing societal view that their condition is their own fault, indicative of some kind of deviant behavior. Thus, their healthcare and treatment are not prioritized. This attitude brings to mind the words of Paul Farmer: “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.”
Njolomole spoke of his personal experience through his diagnosis, and how he grew very ill, so much that his own mother couldn’t recognize his voice on the phone. He spoke of being coldly dismissed from his job because he was too sick to work efficiently. He told the crowd about how when his father finally suggested he get tested, Njolomole had the same reaction as many of the others: shock and embarrassment. “Not me.” These are the emotions that stop people from getting screened and even treated. They know the way society will receive them and this stigma only induces more severe health consequences.
Along with his own story, Njolomole shared some of the instances of stigma he had observed. He spoke of seeing a sick man being brought to the hospital, and how observers on the street were plugging their noses and complaining that he smelled bad. Unfazed by this man’s misery, these people were bothered by his stench. To bystanders, this ill man was not a pained human, but simply an irritating and unpleasant scent. Njolomole, a dynamic speaker naturally, became increasingly passionate and even angry – rightfully so – as he described the degrading treatment he has both experienced and observed.
When expressing his outlook on life, Njolomole described a man with a pinch in his shoe. He walks a little funny because of it, and people laugh. They don’t ask why he is limping, what causes his behavior. Njolomole sees this as the problem; too often people discriminate against those living in terrible circumstances, rather than listening, empathizing, and trying to lift them up. But through his work with PIH, he has seen improvements. The organization has constructed a hospital in Neno, and another in Lisungwi. PIH also provides support to eleven community health centers throughout the district. Prevention and treatment of HIV are two of many health initiatives taken on by the centers. They’ve even gone a step further by developing a community outreach program for HIV positive individuals, which provides education and a sense of community for them. We must hope that through projects like these, and with the guidance of strong and intelligent individuals like Njolomole, the HIV stigma will begin to subside.