"Confidence" was a word that came up often in a conversation with Monique Gildarhie. The confidence she gets from her peers, from her family, from her studying the Bible. Confidence in herself that she was living her life to the fullest, that she was being true to herself that she was on the path God had set for her. This kind of confidence, the kind that speaks of inner peace, is rare in any young woman at the age of 24 such as Monique. What made it even more exceptional was that Monique over came the difficulty of living with HIV and the stigmatization associated with the disease.
When a nurse first informed Monique that she was HIV positive, no counseling was offered. Instead, she was told not to share cups and spoons with others or she could spread her disease. This "advice" was given by a health professional in the year 2000. It was until much later, after she educated herself, that she began to realize how much ignorance surrounded the disease process as it related to HIV and AIDS. Monique believing the health facilities were inadequate to address HIV/AID issues, confidentiality (was almost unheard of), treatment and care.
When we met Monique she refused to be taken to the Public Hospital. She was convinced she would not receive adequate treatment and every one in the city would now know that she had the "big truck" (the local name for HIV/AIDS) she was scared. Every one knowing that you were affected by the "big truck" could result in beatings, name calling, harassment, and homelessness to name a few, she said. Several months later after our initial meeting Monique, she visited the hospital. She began volunteering at the only clinic in Georgetown to assist other newly HIV diagnosed persons. Her goal was to assist the personnel to understand what it means to be living with HIV and how persons should be treated emotionally with assurance of confidentiality.
My many SISTA-to-SISTA talks with Monique revealed so much. Monique was first tested positive of HIV in mid 2000 during her visa application process; she experienced all the expected emotions such as denial, fear, aloneness, frustration, and despondency. Monique started dating at the age of twenty (20) she had one boyfriend (we will call Rasheed) whom she cared for dearly. Unknown to Monique Rasheed, the man she was in love with also had many other females whom he was having unprotected sexual relationships. Disappointed and disillusioned about the relationship after two years of dating Rasheed she finally was able to build the courage to painfully end a relationship she thought she desperately needed.
Monique was so devastated about her life she decided not to date until she could find a trust worthy man, which according to Monique meant "she would never date again because men can not be trusted.
Approximately, one year after her break up with Rasheed, she heard rumors about him being very ill. She never went to see him or gathered information about his condition due to the pain of her failed relationship which she was still nursing. About, one year later after being told that Rasheed was extremely ill, Monique got a message that he had died at the age of twenty eight. There were many rumors that he had died from the "big truck" (HIV/AIDS). The medical records showed he died from pneumonia. Monique was not concerned because it was now two years since she had dated Rasheed. She thought that if indeed he had the big truck it would not affect her. She was uneducated about the HIV impact, modes of transmission and incubation period. Monique continued living a life of abstinence, nursing her broken hearth.
About one to two years after the death of the Rasheed the first man in her life Monique medical test for her visa to the United States revealed that she was HIV positive and she would not be allowed to travel to the United States of America with out a waiver, she was confounded and the only answer she sought was suicide. Monique was distraught about her inability to join her mother in the United States. Her dreams were dashed and now she felt she could not live with this disease. They were no words that I can use to describe her pain as she related her self to me. She talked about her many trips to the Obeya man and the herbal medicine doctor and how sick she remained. She descended almost immediately into denial and complete depression. Monique spent about six months visiting bush medicine doctors and the Obeya man trying to help to strip her from this virus.
But instead of getting better she got worst, she became ill quickly and developed several infections. She finally revealed to her family that she was infected with HIV, they immediately rallied around her. Monique was extremely blessed in that her family loved and supported her throughout. Although her mother lived half a world away, in the United States, after notification of her daughters illness started moving into action, she got involved with HIV and AIDS education and volunteer organizations to gain more information about the disease and ways she could assist in her daughters recovery and adjustment to this new disease affecting her. Her actions led Monique to meeting me and the support system in Guyana. In fact it was Monique mother who contacted me in 2001 after learning about the organization our team quickly contacted Monique and proceeded to assist her.
I remember my first visit with Monique, her skin covered with sores, she was emaciated and she hardly said a word. Monique was filled with tears and pain. In our conversation she recalled these emotions with tears, which slowly turned into a semi-smile, she thought that things were going to be all right because "I knew her mother" therefore may be she can move ahead with our help. We just stood and held each other with her head hanging to the ground, still full of tear. I had made a promise to her mother to get Monique to a doctor so she could receive medical treatment, which was one of my many goals. I knew I had my work cut out Monique had to trust me and be emotionally ready to accept treatment and counseling. We spent the rest of the evening getting to know each other.
I invited Monique to come to my house following day at 1 pm to meet some other women who were infected in HIV and in many case were already at the AIDS stage of the disease. I did not want Monique to leave my house because I was afraid that she would not return the next day, she was still depressed, afraid and confused. She talked about suicide she insisted the herbal medicine was working and she was feeling better some days.
I informed Ms. Pearla of my meeting via telephone and waited to see what the next day would bring. Monique did return the next day clutching a red umbrella and a black pocket book, she rang the bell I greeted her at the door with a kiss and hug I was glad to see her. She was nervous and scared she said, I am not sure if they would like me", as we stood by the door, she asked, "are you telling me the truth". I convinced her that she was ok, we proceeded up the steeps that was the longest 8 flight stairs I ever climbed I thought, it seemed Monique was not moving. But my goal was to support her and return to her mother with the promise fulfilled. Finally upstairs, she was surprised at the women there, fortunately she recognized persons she knew also. Monique was greeted by several persons living with HIV and AIDS.
Monique became a member of a group known, as "G++" comprised of Guyanese living with HIV. This group was some what a support network for each other their goal was to provide education, understanding, laughter and friendship. This was the only group as such in Guyana. After our meeting, joining the group and meeting some key persons in the struggle in the fight of HIV/AIDS Monique began trying to keep her healthy and strong through good nutrition and a sound lifestyle.
In the last year and a half of her life, three events occurred that led Monique to find the confidence she developed. One is that she turned to the church, being baptized had given her a peace not obtainable in a tangible manner. Through studying the bible, Monique had found much clarity and inspiration in the words and the ways of Jesus. Secondly, meeting me, founder of the Caribbean People International Collective Inc., (CPIC Inc) and our members CPIC Inc is a USA based non-profit charitable volunteer organization that conducted empowerment of women, and girls and the promotion of positive lifestyles in the USA and the Caribbean.
In addition to work directly related to HIV/AIDS work in the Caribbean. CPIC collaborated with G+ to assist persons living with HIV/AIDS. The organization which her mother was a member of assisted Monique in becoming a member where she received assistance and support. Finally, attending the tenth International Conference for People Living with HIV in Trinidad where she was surrounded by fun, joyous, non-discriminating peers, all living with HIV/AIDS. This event further erased any feelings of isolation that may have existed in Monique's mind. Again, her confidence was boosted as she came away with a stronger sense of self. Upon her return from the conference, we spoke she was happy.
"I met so many women that had no clue that they were
not alone their stories were just like mine. I thought I was alone I was
ashamed, I felt dirty. I did not believe you before I left for the
trip that it would be very good to go. I am so glad I had this
opportunity. I am assured I did nothing wrong, I was a good girl
doing normal things I did not steal, drink, prostitute or take drugs
I just fell in love with the wrong person when I became infected.
You know Ms. Dawn I feel sorry for Rasheed who transmitted the
thing to me, because I think if he knew he was not alone, he would not
have felt the need to hide this secret and infect others. But, Ms. Dawn
she said, how do you know you are infected when you have not been
tested for this and don't feel sick. I could have infected some one else
if I was out again until I got my test. That is the saddest thing for
many of us."
Monique was well on the way of becoming a true advocate, whenever she had the chance to do so; Monique spoke to her young cousins, friends and any one who listened about the seriousness of HIV and their sexual behaviors. Although she never received any education sexual relationships, she was determined to see that others did. And through her efforts, person-by-person, Monique made a difference. Monique had promised to go public about her disease in Guyana in the summer of 2002, in order to bring awareness of the disease and to show a face associated with this epidemic that was taking the lives of some many young adults like her self.
Nevertheless, that day never came on 10 June 2002 late that evening as I prepare for my 10th upcoming trip to Guyana I receive the most dreadful phone call from Monique's mom Pearla stating that, "Monique was not feeling well and did not want to go to the doctor, please give her a call." I tried calling Guyana and did not get through on the line, and thought I could wait until tomorrow. As the next day rolled around I received another call early that morning Monique had passed away as a result of AIDS related complicated. She is truly missed, her smile and outreach was overwhelming in such a short time she made a immense difference to Persons Infected With Human Immunodeficiency Virus (PIWHIV) and persons living with AIDS (PLWA) in Guyana. I later learned from Monique's colleagues that she was ill on the last two days of the trip. She was not taking her medicine, she began having fevers and colds but she did not think it was a big deal. She continued to have a great time learning and meeting others.
How can we all learn from this child of god?
Dawn C. Stewart
Founder, CEO CPIC Inc.