Sisterly Support

Eric Bond, EGPAF

Chanclene is a lively and engaged student at the Government Bilingual High School in Bamenda, Cameroon. She looks forward to studying journalism at the University of Bamenda next year. Today, she is confident and healthy. But that wasn’t always the case. When she was 14, Chanclene discovered that she is living with HIV.

“I became sick, very sick—so sick that I could not go to school for the second term,” says Chanclene. So I went in for an HIV test. Then the doctor said that I am HIV-positive. I laughed and said, ‘Are you talking about me?’

“I turned to my mom and asked, ‘Are you HIV-positive,’ She said, yes. She got married to my dad and then she got it [from him].”

Chanclene’s mother provided loving care, but Chanclene soon discovered that she also had a broad network of support among her peers at the Bamenda Regional Hospital, where she went for treatment.

On the first Saturday of each month, about two-dozen children and adolescents assemble for a psychosocial support group organized and staffed by the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF). They are given lessons about HIV, such as why they need to adhere to treatment, how to practice safe sex, and how to prevent of mother-to-child HIV transmission. They also share their fears and triumphs with each other.

On this Saturday morning, Chanclene, now 19, stands at the entrance of the pediatric room and gives testimony to the children and adolescents sitting on benches along the walls. She is the first to speak, but eventually most of the children will stand and express their thoughts. Some look up to Chanclene in rapt attention while others stare dejectedly at the concrete floor.

“When I started coming here, I was very discouraged,” says Chanclene. “At times I said, ‘You are an HIV-positive person. How will you be doing in life? When you want to get married, how will you tell your husband that you are HIV-positive? He will just say Whoa—that girl is not for me.’

“I wasn’t taking my drugs. But when I came here, my Auntie Esther and Auntie Clementine [support group facilitators] told me, ‘You know your [standard of life] is not good. Why are you skipping your drugs?’

“I replied, ‘I am not taking my drugs because there is nothing in life for me.’

“They said, ‘No, Chanclene. In life there is always a second chance. You are an HIV-positive person, but it doesn't mean that you can’t have what [your friends] have.’ So I gave myself a chance. I learned how to take my drugs. I discovered myself very strong and growing fatter—even though before I was very small, I became very strong.

Applause breaks out at Chanclene’s declaration of health.

“When I started coming to this meeting,” Chanclene continues, “I learned a lot that can help me in life. First, I learned to appreciate everything that God gives to us, because without God we are nothing. The second thing I learned is to have courage to do everything in life positively—no matter how you feel; no matter how difficult it is. When you lose a battle, it doesn’t mean that you lose the war.”

Chanclene says that she has only disclosed her HIV status to three friends outside of the support group: “My two best friends, they understand me; they can keep secrets. And very confidentially, I’m in love with [the other] one—it’s a boy.

“I told him, ‘It’s like this. I’m HIV-positive.’ I turned to him and asked him, ‘Do you still want to be with me?’ He said, I won’t give up on you. I am with you until the end.’”

In an interview after the meeting, Chanclene says that the support group is important to her because she can talk openly about her HIV status. “Testimony helps me in many ways,” she says. “It helps me feel free and makes me feel like a star.”

She sees herself as a big sister to the younger children who are now going through some of the despair and confusion that she once felt.

"It’s a family. That’s what really motivates me to come,” says Chanclene. “There’s a special bond.”