ZIO MWALE, Lusaka
AT 14, award -winning HIV|AIDS activist Paul Banda was diagnosed with tuberculosis (TB), a disease he never understood. At the age of 15, he tested HIV positive.
But now aged 28, he is happily married with a three-year-old daughter.
“I was in Grade 10 when I was found with TB, it was quite challenging for me because I was in school and I needed to maintain my grades,” says Paul, who is a musician, producer, rapper and disc jockey.
Commonly known as Just Slim, an acronym for Steadily Locked in Music, he was first diagnosed with TB in 2003 but with access to effective medicines and treatment, he was cured of the disease within same year.
“Looking back before I knew my status, I was sick almost all the time, but it was just one of those things where you think it’s probably a normal thing because a lot of people get sick every now and then,” he says.
After the TB treatment, he got better, but the following year, the TB relapsed and the situation alarmed the doctors who advised his mother to consider taking him for an HIV test.
“I was 15, I knew exactly what HIV was and I was not sexually active so it didn’t make sense because I knew how HIV is supposed to be transmitted,” he says. “I never looked at the fact that I could have got it from birth.”
When his mother considered taking him for an HIV test, she opened up to him about her status — she was HIV positive.
“So I went for the test and results came out positive,” he says. “My CD4 was 4 cells and normal CD4 is roughly 1200 cells, so any optimistic infection could attack. I was immediately put on ARVs.”
Two months after he knew his status, his mother died. Apart from being HIV positive, she had arthritis, cancer and anemia. She was also involved in an accident six months before her death.
“After my mother passed on, I tried to move on, but I was sort of withdrawn,” he says. “Throughout my final year in school, I wasn’t that much active. I did okay, but I felt I could have done better if I was in a different situation.”
His family knew about his status and they were very supportive but each time he was away from home, the real feeling of being infected would come back.
“I have older siblings and they were very supportive,” he says. “To the world, I was shut out, I didn’t want to let people know. But at home I could be myself.”
In 2006, after leaving high school, Paul decided to open up about his status to his best friend Wilson Cheeba.
“When I told my best friend about my status, he encouraged me and told me a similar story about one of his relatives who was in a similar situation,” he says. “He didn’t treat me differently; our friendship stayed the same.”
In 2007, Paul joined the music industry. It is in the same year that he started coming to terms with accepting who he was. He came out publicly about his status because he realised that he was not going to be with his family all the time.
“I wanted to pursue music as a career,” he says. “I was thinking what happens when the day comes that I have to go to the clinic to get my drugs and people saw me on TV.”
In 2008, he grew in his music career, when he was signed to X Y Z and he featured on fellow rapper Slap D’s most acclaimed album Black Na White. He also produced Slap D’s hit single Gold Digger.
In 2010, he was presented with an opportunity to talk about his status on Me, Myself and HIV, a documentary which was broadcasted on MTV on World AIDS Day.
Prior to featuring on the documentary, he also did some shows with local radio stations where he spoke about living a positive life and how one can overcome stigma.
In 2011, he was chosen as an ambassador for “Brothers for Life,” a mass-media HIV prevention campaign targeting Zambian males. It was launched by the National AIDS Council (NAC) and The United Nations Children’s’ Fund (UNICEF).
By 2012, he had released a number of singles.
He later started working with AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF).
He was given a platform together with B’Flow to collaborate on a song Know You Status, that has been used on different platforms to preach about HIV.
“People are afraid to test because of the stigma that comes with HIV,” he says. “I feel like the only way you can fight stigma is if you stand up and say, ‘I accept who I am, so whether you accept me or not, it does not hurt me’.”
In 2015, he was part of the AHF campaign ‘Keeping the Promise’. The campaign aimed at reminding world leaders to keep funding efforts towards HIV treatment and prevention.
“They gathered a number of artistes; B’Flow and I were the only Zambian artistes among international artistes like: Common, Queen Latifah, Mi Casa, and Big Nuz. It was in Durban [South Africa] and we attracted a huge crowd about 12,000 people,” he says.
For Paul, this is only the beginning of his journey because he is working to run his own project called Life after HIV. The project aims at helping people living with HIV to cope and accept their status. The other aim is to eradicate stigma by educating people that HIV is like any other disease.
“I haven’t been stigmatised,” he says. “If it’s been there, then it’s something that I don’t identify as stigma because I accept my truth. The funny part is stigma is real; it’s real because people are afraid to talk about their HIV status. Once you don’t accept that, it’s easy for you to get hurt by what another person is going to say.”
Paul encourages people living positively to accept and follow the doctor’s advice.