“My cheeks are sore from smiling,” says Loyce Maturu.
The 24-year-old, who lives in Harare, Zimbabwe, is posing for a photo at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C. She’s come to be interviewed about her activism. She’s a champion for people with HIV/AIDS and TB (she’s been diagnosed with both). So really, the pain of smiling is nothing compared to what she’s been through.
And she’s joking of course, about how hard it is to pose for a photo. She even takes off her glasses because she wants to show off her eyes.
She’s had media training, she says, so she can tell her story in an “epic” way. But her story is so epic that she doesn’t need any coaching.
And this is it, in a nutshell: Her father died in a car accident when she was a young girl. Her mother and younger brother died of a combination of AIDS and TB when she was 10. Two years later she became ill and learned she was HIV positive and had TB as well. Some family members and friends shunned her. She was, she says, verbally and physically abused by a family member with whom she was living. She tried to kill herself by taking all her TB medicine. The suicide attempt was unsuccessful.
With psychological support, she found her balance. At 19 she became a peer counselor for teens who face the diseases she has faced. She’s a member of the National AIDS Council’s Young People’s Network in Zimbabwe and the Communities Delegation to the Global Fund Board.
She’s a fledgling lobbyist as well. The anti-poverty group Results brought her to the U.S. this year for a speaking tour. She spoke to college students, journalists — and members of Congress, telling her story and emphasizing the need to “make sure people have access to treatment.”
Our interview with Maturu was edited for length and clarity.
How did you react to the news that you had TB and HIV/AIDS?
I got depressed and was crying all the time. There’s a lot of stigma associated with AIDS or TB. The only thing I was thinking was “I am going to die” because of how AIDS and TB have been portrayed.
How are you now?
Thanks to the Global Fund I managed to get treatment for TB and got better. I am cured.
How was the TB treatment?
It was difficult. I had to take so many pills. One side effect is the loss of appetite. I looked so skinny and a bit sickish.
You were also dealing with HIV. How did you cope?
I was going to an HIV clinic [to start treatment] and one of the nurses had a small support group. I could open up and share my story and receive counseling. That made me feel comfortable. It was really a powerful way for me to get motivated.
What happened with school during this time?
When I got sick I had to stop school for some months. When I finished my secondary [school] I didn’t do well. Now I’m doing a certificate in community development at a college in Harare.
And you did this without your parents. What or who gave you strength?
I can say my aunt who went with me to the clinic, my father’s younger brother’s wife, she really stood by me and gave me a lot of support.
Were all your relatives supportive?
I faced emotional and physical abuse from one of my relatives I was staying with. I thought I was not normal, I thought of killing myself, I took all the TB medications I had. I said I wanted to die. I was admitted to the hospital. I got psychological support.
What is your attitude toward the relative who abused you?
For me I have already forgiven them. It’s now a thing of the past. Maybe they did it because they didn’t have information about HIV, and maybe they looked down upon me thinking a person with HIV is not able to become someone in life.
You seem like a saint. Do you have any flaws?
I’m very short-tempered. Especially when someone says something bad or something that annoys me. I really get offended. I just make sure that I keep my mouth shut so I don’t say anything at that time. If I’m full-blown angry I don’t want to say anything.
What kinds of things make you angry?
If I see anyone saying any negative things, I’m going to punch that person.
Have you ever punched anyone?
I haven’t punched anyone but I’m going to punch someone very soon.
One boy said to my friend who has HIV, “I’m sorry, I don’t date a grave.”
And can I ask what you do for fun?
For fun? I love sleeping. Oh my goodness, I am a sleepaholic! Because even if I sleep in the afternoon I’ll still want to sleep in the evening.