27 June 2018

Zimbabwe: When Bhundu Boys Guitarist Defied Odds

On June 27, 1991, exactly 27 years ago, one of the finest bass guitarists to emerge from Zimbabwe, David Mankaba, breathed his last following his brave battle against HIV and Aids related illness at the young age of 32.

Mankaba died with all his guitar playing skills that made the Biggie Tembo-led Bhundu Boys a household name both in Zimbabwe and beyond our borders.

Although it is widely believed that the other two band members, Shepherd Munyama and Shakespear Kangwena also succumbed to the once deadly disease, it was only Mankaba who summoned all the strength he had during his last days to tell his friends that they had to publicise the cause of his death to the world, making him the first local celebrity to go public about his HIV/Aids status.

By doing so, he reasoned, that this would help the nation in fighting HIV and Aids stigma which was rampant during the early years of the scourge. A feat that many are yet to emulate, the late musician's dream of leading the fight against stigmatisation, is yet to reach commendable levels, as some sections of the world still suffer in silence for fear of being labelled unclean in the orthodox world.

Former wife to renowned ex-Warriors coach Clemens Westerhof, Tendai, pro-actively initiated a programme to improve the lives of many disgruntled HIV/Aids public personalities by helping form the Public Personalities Against Aids Trust (PPAAT) in 2003 following her disclosure that she had also tested HIV positive.

(Tendai) Westerhof, a former model, making her a celebrity in her own right, tried very hard to impress the Zimbabwean citizenry with her disclosure but it was marred in controversy as she was in a messy divorce with the affable gaffer.

Commendably, 12 Members of Parliament went for public voluntary HIV test and made their results public following her call.

As if by design, Tendai has since left the PPAAT to join Pan African Positive Women Coalition in Zimbabwe.

This leaves Mankaba's case a unique one.

Fast forward 27 years later, Zimbabwe is yet to have a prominent public person to come out in the open disclosing their HIV statuses although the country has had numerous deaths of these people allegedly to the disease.

Prominent footballers, actors, musicians, politicians, journalists and business people have perished and there have been public conclusions both factual and misleading as to the cause of their deaths but none have dared to open up.

There are even many living celebrities who fall into the bracket but because of the animal called stigma, are yet to disclose.

Zimbabwe is on the warpath to eradicate HIV and Aids by 2030 and to reach the 90-90-90 target by 2020.

By 2020, 90 percent of all people living with HIV should know their status, 90 percent of all people diagnosed with HIV infection will receive sustained antiretroviral therapy and by 2020, 90 percent of all people receiving antiretroviral therapy will have viral suppression.

It is against this background that questions have been raised whether our public personalities, are doing enough to complement Government efforts to reach the said targets. Many people are afraid to get tested and chances are that not all of those with HIV are going to know their status by 2020.

Westerhof still recalls the days of PPAAT when she tried to take the celebrities aboard. "I recall working with football legend Peter Ndlovu, music icon Dr Oliver Mtukudzi and the late mbira maestro Chiwoniso Maraire and this had a positive impact on the national response to end Aids in Zimbabwe.

"However, the momentum died down as many funders withdrew funding from Zimbabwe in 2005. PPAAT and many other organisations were forced to close shop because there were no resources," she narrated.

However, Westerhof believes public persons do not want to come out openly when it comes to HIV and Aids but when it is some other non-communicable diseases.

"From my observation, most public figures prefer to lead by example when it comes to other non-communicable illnesses such as cancer, TB and they even go for public screening of these and want the whole world know but when it comes to HIV, they shy away.

"It has also not been easy to involve them in supporting or funding the cause of people living with HIV and Aids as they fear being labelled that they are also HIV+ because of association. They would rather fund or support the cause of non-communicable diseases, sports or musical galas than Aids," she said.

The executive director of SAfAIDS Mrs Lois Chingandu echoed the same sentiments saying the public figures can get tested for HIV but will never reveal their status.

"We have worked with chiefs, journalists, Parliamentarians and pastors championing the HIV prevention campaigns but the major challenge has been to get them speak openly about their HIV status.

"The most they will share is 'my brother died of HIV, my sister died of HIV' but not saying anything about their status," said Mrs Chingandu.

Talented guitarist and musician, Progress Chipfumo said without their titles, they are also normal human beings who suffer from shame and stigma like any other person.

"Can you tell me your HIV status just like that? We are also humans who suffer from shame and anything bad about HIV. But we have been singing about the disease for too long to fight stigma only that it still remains a salient problem in our society," said Chipfumo.

While the country has made significant strides in mitigating the effects of HIV and Aids in recent years, it seems a lot still needs to be done to fight stigma which is threatening to derail the gains achieved so far.

Mr Taurai Nyandoro the National Coordinator of Zimbabwe AIDS Network is of the view that it should start from individuals and then to the society.

"We still have to deal with self and then societal stigma. The negative labels dissuade coming out but of cause there are some well-known people who have disclosed their status. These individuals are a great source of encouragement not only to people living with HIV, but to programmers as well," he said.

He also went on to say that Zimbabwe needs to have a legal framework to deal with stigma. "A strong legal and policy environment is key. We need to address the cultural norms, believes and social malpractices that fuel stigma and discrimination. There is need for some legal policies that would make people desist from labelling," he said.

Zimbabwe remains on course to achieving the fast track targets and ending Aids by 2030. It is yet to be seen whether there will be a celebrity who will follow the David Mankaba route and help fight stigma.

Public persons remain heroes and idols for many in society and their lives and influence can shape national discourse. People look up to them as life-changers as Westerhof had to conclude: "If we had many known public figures getting tested and disclosing their HIV status, that would go a long way in eradicating the stigma around HIV and Aids."

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