#IAmStillMe by Nozibele Qamngana Mayaba: Introductory chapter
I’m sure this won’t take long. I have a meeting in 20 minutes with my boss, Robert, to go over a pricing project. I’m happy with my new role, but I cannot say that I’m looking forward to learning about research methodologies. A part of me misses the event and branding days of my old job. All I had to worry about was my marketing stock, and how much of it I needed for an upcoming event. There was no real science behind it. No strategic decisions needed. It was a walk in the park. But it was repetitive and boring. My 12 months at the company’s headquarters in Germany made me realise that if I wanted to climb the corporate ladder and for people to see me differently, my role had to change. I had to present myself as an asset - someone they couldn’t do without.”
I was still making my way to our canteen boardroom downstairs as all these thoughts were streaming through my mind. There was a buzz of excitement in the corridors. Our Human Resources (HR) department had organised a week-long wellness event to increase staff morale and they had been encouraging everyone to attend. You could get various health tests done, talk to a consultant about joining a gym, participate in fitness activities or visit a medical aid scheme stand. I had purposely avoided the sessions for the past few days because I was not particularly excited by the idea of a stranger telling me that I need to lose weight. I knew that would be the only advise that those consultants would tell me. I could hear them say, “Your BMS is that of a 35-year-old woman”, and I’m only 22. “I’m here for the First-Aid kit!”, I announced to one of the organisers as I walked in the room. “I saw some people walking around with First-Aid kits and they said I could also get one”, I casually continued. Zethu, our HR officer, and one of the organisers in the room chuckled at my request. “You will have to undergo a full health test to get it. Nothing for mahala sisi”, Zethu remarked. “Niyaphapha yazi?”, I responded cheekily. “No one is forcing you, but if you want the First-Aid kit, you will have to get the tests done.” She was right. No one forced me to go there. But, since I’d walked all the way, I might as well get it over and done with. A lady at the Virgin Active stall was already signaling to get me to start by her. My worst nightmare! I murmured under my breath as I encouraged myself to think about the nice First-Aid kit. But I was determined to make this consultation as short as possible. “May I take you through the different options we have?”. Her tone remained constant as she would have been trained to deal with uninterested clients. “I just want to know how much I would be paying if I joined?”, my skepticism was running ahead of me. “Well, it depends on what package you’re looking for”. Her trained and polite self calmly agitated my impatience. It was clear that it would be a longer consultation that I budgeted for. After a carefully curated dialogue with this official, I learnt that I would have to part ways with between R450 to R600 worth of my salary every month. “Yhuuu! Hayi, shame. Yeka!”, my response slipped out. “Sorry. I meant to say, thank you but no, thanks”. She tried to salvage what was left of the failed presentation by explaining the Vitality option that would slightly reduce this cost range, but I was already getting up to move to the next stall. Seeing that the conversation was not going anywhere, she then decided to let me go. As I walked to the next stand, I realised I may have been a little rude to the lady, so I quickly turned around to say, “Thank you though”. … The MediMed medical scheme stall was next. I had been wanting to include my mother as a beneficiary on my policy. She was turning 65 years on that same year and was about to retire. The other day, she mentioned that she would be resigning as opposed to retiring. “Ndifuna imali yam. U-Government makandinike zonke imnfanelo zam”, she would say. The tragedy in all of this would be to forfeit all her benefits, including medical aid. And guess who would be liable to pick up that cost? Me. Her cover would not cost me anything below R2 000 monthly, and that would be coming out of my R15 000 gross salary, less than R10 000 net. This would be on top of the R1 500 that I already contribute monthly towards groceries and her other expenses. Another R4000 goes towards my car and insurance. Considering my monthly fuel, policies, tithes, my own medical aid, and other general expenses, I barely make it every month. Unless she’s willing to reduce the allowance I give her, which will never happen, I don’t know how this is going to be possible. I had every intention to enquire about the cost of adding her to my policy when I arrived at the stand but after doing some quick calculations, I decided to only update my policy details.
I quickly looked at the time on my phone and I realised that I still had 15 minutes to spare. The next phase of the process was the exercises, but I told myself that they will have to wait for another time. I didn’t care anymore if they refused to give me the damn kit. I couldn’t risk getting to my meeting breathless because I had to do some frog jumps. I skipped all the workout activities and opted to go straight to the nurses’ corner. I encouraged myself that, “I should be out in 10 minutes and that should give me enough time to go over some notes before the meeting”.
To allow privacy, the organisers had tried their best to seclude the testing stations, but someone had done a lousy job in partitioning the cubicles with light panels. If one paid some attention, they could hear conversations on the other side of the dividing panels. I also did not know why they couldn’t do these tests in the clinic since it was a walking distance from where we were.
“I need to tell you that I don’t like the pricking”, I quickly confessed to the nurse as I sat down. “Please be gentle”, I begged. “Don’t worry. It’s not too bad. It’s just a tiny prick”, she reassured me. I could recall two occasions where I had gone through the test. The first time was when I was still at university. It was during the free time between lectures. Delaree, a friend of mine, and I casually decided that we wanted to visit our campus clinic for the HIV voluntary counseling and testing (VCT). I was 18 years old, she was 19 and we were both virgins. The second time was when I was in Germany, during my 12-month marketing and sales trainee programme, between March 2012 to February 2013. On both occasions of my testing, the results were negative. Back then I made a habit of mapping out all the ways one could get HIV and eliminated each from my life experience. I was virgin so I did not have to worry about sexual risks. I never shared a needle with anyone. All the times that my doctor had injected me, the needle package had always been opened in my presence. I’ve never had any medical operations and that took out the possibility of blood transmissions infection. I had been very confident on both occasions that the result would be negative. I was brought back to reality as the nurse asked me if I’m ready to take this third test. “Just go for it. You know I will never be ready”, I said jokingly as I closed my eyes. With a tiny finger prick, blood come out of my finger. She placed the test on top of that drop of blood. While we waited, I kept on checking my phone to see if I was still running on time. She began to explain how to interpret the results of the test. “Two lines mean a positive result. One line means you are HIV negative and no lines means the test didn’t work”. I responded casually and said, “Okay”. I knew how this worked, but I had to be respectful of her job. “Oh!”, she said. “We have to do the test again”
“Huh? Why?” “Urgh, don’t worry. This happens sometimes. The test was not clear”, and she continued to prepare for the next test. “So, you have to do it again??”, I asked. I wasn’t paying attention to anything she was saying before, but she had my attention from then on. “I’ll do it on another finger this time”. Something shifted inside me, but I went along with it.
“Why would a test not be clear? Does this happen all the time? Even if it did, am I that special that it had to happen to me? Sies!”, my nerves tossed me to and fro but I was all the braver this time. There was no back and forth or cry baby drama over the second pricking. It was all done in one go and my blood came out into that white rectangular HIV test kit. The wait seemed a bit longer this time. “Who would you tell if you had to test positive?”, she asked after what felt like a long and awkward silence between us. “My mom!”, I said without hesitation and wondered if she knew that I was lying. “Mhm. Okay”, she remarked with uncertainty in her eyes.
“What the hell does that mean?!” She placed both tests in front of me and said, “You’ve tested positive.” “Excuse me?!” “You are HIV positive”, she whispered this time as if she was trying to calm me down. “What!? HIV POSITIVE?”, I asked in shock. I realised that I may have been loud when she repeatedly asked me to keep it down. “But how?”. Her look was just as blank as I was about the results. “I have only slept with one person!” I immediately felt the need to explain my good sexual behaviour and I thought it was important that she was aware of this information. “Have you…uhm…have you tested before?”, she asked with hesitation. “Yes! The last time I tested was the previous year in August 2012, and the result had been negative. As I told you, I’ve only slept with one person, my boyfriend”. I could feel my voice rising with each word that was coming out of my mouth. “Okay. Before we continue, I need you to calm down.”
“Please don’t tell me to come down!”. She had no business telling me to calm down. She needed to make me understand why these two tests came out positive. It didn’t make any sense. She reached for my hand but I stood up and told her that I needed to go to the meeting that I was clearly late for at that stage. As I walked out of the venue I told myself to remain the same bubbly and jolly Nozi I was when I arrived. If there was a chance that someone was listening to the conversation that would surely confuse them. “Bye Zee”, I shouted with a high-pitched voice. I waved goodbye to Zethu and quickly managed to make my way out through the door.