CHOMBA MUSIKA, Lusaka
â€œI DECIDED to come out in the open about my HIV-positive status because I believe if you talk about something, someone cannot use it against you,â€ says 26-year-old musician and HIV/AIDS activist Paul Banda, alias, Just Slim.
Mr Banda, who has been on anti-retroviral therapy (ART) for 11 years, adds: â€œKnowing the discrimination surrounding people living with HIV/AIDS also compelled me to reveal my HIV status. I just wanted to be free as I embark on my music careerâ€.
Probably the first Zambian artist to disclose his HIV status, Mr Banda was last month among several renowned Zambian musicians who were performing at the ZedMeFree concert aimed at ending HIV.
Held at the Lusaka Showground on the sidelines of this yearâ€™s World AIDS day commemoration, the ZedMeFree concert was organised by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) in conjunction with the Muchimba Music Foundation.
Mr Banda says discovering of his HIV-positive status compelled him to use his musical talent to encourage his peers to seek HIV testing and to live positively if found with the virus.
The music producer and songwriter explains that his health started deteriorating when he was 15 years.
â€œIn 2003, I was diagnosed with tuberculosis [TB]. I got healed after undergoing treatment,â€ the musician, who was born with HIV, recounts.
But barely a year later, the TB reoccurred, a development which prompted doctors to recommend that Mr Banda, who was then in secondary school, takes an HIV test.
With the innocence that comes along with childhood, the singer found the physicianâ€™s recommendation â€œpuzzlingâ€ because â€œI was not even sexually activeâ€.
â€œBeing a 15-year-old boy who had never had sex, I found it a puzzle to be asked to go for an HIV test because I was aware that one of the ways HIV is transmitted was through sexual intercourse,â€ narrates the AHF ambassador.
For Mr Bandaâ€™s mother, the doctorâ€™s recommendation for her son to take an HIV test was an opportunity to disclose her HIV-positive status to him.
â€œMy mother knew her HIV-positive status at the time and that is how she opened up to me and told me [that she was living with HIV],â€ he said.
After receiving some motherly counsel, Mr Banda agreed to go for the HIV test which turned out positive but with a very low immune system whose CD4 count (rough indication of the strength of your immune system) was only four. The normal CD4 range for HIV-negative people is between 400 to 1600 cells.
Mr Banda was immediately put on ART.
But barely two months into his treatment and living to terms with his HIV-positive status, Mr Banda lost the pillar that strengthened him to accept his health condition.
â€œI was put on ART in 2004 but unfortunately my mother died two months after I started my treatmentâ€¦it was a big blow for me,â€ he gravely narrates.
The artiste, who lives by the motto: Born to Endure Bred to Succeed, said despite the health challenges that characterised his childhood, he chose to accept his HIV-positive status and to live a positive life that will inspire his peers.
Just Slim, whose music career dates back to around 2007, began speaking openly about his HIV-positive status about seven years ago.
He urges those living with HIV to consider disclosing their conditions, especially to people they loved and trusted.
â€œTalking about it has made me free and comfortable around people. I have nothing to hideâ€¦considering the stigma that surrounds HIV. People do not want to talk about it. I am no longer worried that I will die; I am now free,â€ Mr Banda, a recipient of the Bravery and Courageous award from the Ministry of Education, said.
The soft-spoken artiste believes the more people talk about AIDS, the easier it is to live with it and for the community to accept people living with the virus.
He urges youths to find time to go for an HIV test and accept the results in an event where they test positive for the virus.
â€œYoung people need to understand the importance of knowing their status, you might have contracted HIV like me, from birth and it is not your fault, you might have contracted it through promiscuous behaviour but still that does not make you a bad person, you need to take time to accept the situation that this thing happens, AIDS is real,â€ the singer said.
He further counselled his peers to stay away from HIV/AIDS risky behaviour.
â€œIf you gonna have sex, use a condom and protect yourself and be responsible in your behaviour,â€ the Brothers for Life ambassador, said.
The musician, who has been working with various organisations involved in HIV/AIDS advocacy, said knowing his HIV status has motivated him to educate others about the health condition.
As part of his HIV advocacy initiatives, Just Slim recently composed a song titled, Know your status, which was inspired by the singerâ€™s HIV status. The lyrics of the single encourages citizens to go for HIV counselling and testing.
â€œApart from just making music that talks about love, I use it [music] to advocate HIV/ AIDS awareness.
â€œRecently, I worked on a song with musician B Flow [Brian Bwembya] called Know Your Status, which was adopted by AIDS Healthcare Foundation early this year,â€ Mr Banda, who performed the song alongside B Flow during the ZedMeFree concert, said.
The singer urges his fellow artistes to use their talent to advocate positive change in society.
â€œAs artistes we have so many people that look up to us and we cannot afford to misuse the influence that we have on societyâ€¦we have to do things that inspire and make citizens more responsible in everything that they do,â€ he said.
To those feeling nervous after testing HIV-positive, Just Slim has some advice.
â€œThere is life after HIVâ€¦I am living proof that you can have HIV and be well and healthy, HIV does not change who you areâ€.
CHOMBA MUSIKA, Lusaka