There are 2.04 million people in Zambia (population 13.8 million) who are HIV positive. One of them is journalist Enock Ngoma, deputy news editor at a national daily paper, the Times of Zambia. He has worked in newspapers for 22 years. In addition to his editorial work, Ngoma writes a weekly column, Aids Corner, in the Sunday edition of the paper.
He sits in his office off the paper’s small newsroom on Lusaka’s Freedom Way and recalls grimly how he discovered he was HIV positive.
“It was 1997. I was due to spend a month in the US on a one-month programme in Washington. At that time, you had to take a HIV test before you were permitted a visa to travel to the US. I was tested, and the following day, I went to get my results.
“A US doctor told me I was HIV positive and that I could not travel. There was no counselling. I remember walking around afterwards in shock. I was devastated.”
Once diagnosed, Ngoma had a new understanding and a “passion” about the importance of how the HIV story was reported in the media. “I thought I could help others. I thought: ‘what can I do to play a part in the story?’”
He started to write his Aids Corner weekly column six years ago.
Ngoma received a huge response to a column he wrote early last year. “It was on stigma and discrimination,” he says.
He wrote about a HIV positive barber who was working in the market of Mtendere township, and whose photograph the paper also carried. The intention of the column was to remind readers that HIV positive people can, and do, carry out normal lives and professions.
Initially, the barber was ostracised by his community in the township. He lost customers and there were calls to get him “thrown out of the market because people were afraid they would get HIV from his barber implements”.
But gradually, people in other businesses in the market came forward to join the barber to say that they were also HIV positive. Together, they formed a group to combat discrimination.
“One by one, people joined him, and in that market there are now more than 45 people who have businesses there who are also HIV positive. He has got back his business and customers are flocking to him.” Ngoma wrote about all this in a follow-up column.
Ironically, given he found out his HIV status via a thwarted trip to the US, he is now a frequent visitor there. “From the time I started writing the column, I have been invited internationally to speak at conferences about HIV,” he says. His most recent trip was to Boston.
Advice and support
Ngoma says his newspaper was very poor at covering HIV and health issues – until recently. “Every Tuesday we have a health page now; it covers cancer, hypertension, TB, HIV.”
He believes that one of the most important health messages to send to readers about the topic of HIV is adherence to Anti Retroviral Drugs (ARVs, which manage the HIV virus). “Everything else is equally important – addressing stigma, encouraging people to go for counselling and testing.”
Stigma around a HIV diagnosis remains a societal barrier in Zambia. “Stigma is causing people to die, because they won’t go for testing,” he says bluntly.
Panos is a non-governmental organisation with a presence in several developing countries. It focuses on trying to ensure “that information is effectively used to foster public debate, pluralism and democracy”. In 2004, Panos established the Network of Journalists Living with HIV.
There are now 700 members, most of them living in sub-Saharan Africa. Ngoma is one of four Zambian members. Zambia used to have five members, but one reporter died last month. This is a private, members-only forum, that provides advice, contacts and support.
Lilian Chigona is the executive director of Lusaka’s Panos office. “The network was established as a way of helping HIV members of the media to help themselves. Self-reflection has to be part of the process,” she explains. “If you are a television presenter in Africa, you’re a celebrity, and you do not necessarily want to publicly state your HIV status.”
HIV positive journalists were not finding their way to access services for themselves even though they were reporting on stories related to the issue. “That’s why the network was set up; a private forum where journalists are free to talk and give each other advice about things like medication,”she says.
Ngoma is aware of how influential local media can be in the way HIV stories are reported, especially those that reduce stigma and encourage more people to come forward for testing.
As a journalist who writes about HIV and is HIV positive, he is also aware of the power of his own perspective in the stories he writes.
Ngoma has not yet written his own personal story for the Times of Zambia, although he is planning to do so. (He agreed to go on the record about his status for this interview with The Irish Times.)
“As people who work in the media, we are role models in society, and we should take the lead and say, ‘Yes, I am living with HIV,’” he says. “We can play our part in a small way, but that small way is one that can have a big effect.”