The Positive Side

Summer 2011 

Profile: Hope and Dignity

HIV has not extinguished these cherished values in Peggy Frank of Victoria. On the contrary, even after more than 20 years, she continues to nourish them in herself and in her HIV-positive sisters and brothers in Africa.

THE YEAR WAS 1987 and I was a 33-year-old graduate student at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. With the international development charity World University Services of Canada (WUSC) I had travelled to Zimbabwe — once referred to as the “Jewel of Africa” because of its social policies and economic prosperity at the time. There, the earth smelled warm, the sky shone blue and every turn in the road held surprises.

In a country that was seven years independent, I witnessed the complexities of development: the human need for housing, education and jobs and the challenges facing rural farming populations colonized into poverty. The excitement and optimism of the country’s people seduced me into remaining behind when the other students headed back to Canada. I hoped to study land-use planning in the romantic Zambezi Valley in the north of the country.

For the next five months, I wandered northern Zimbabwe, sailed in parasite- and crocodile-infested waters with a Zimbabwean sweetie, danced to African drums, proudly delivered a young Tonga mother’s baby in the belly of a boat in the Kariba District, and gagged on goat intestine at a meeting about rural community realities. I was treated to African hospitality and embraced by University of Zimbabwe professors, who assured me that my research was needed.

Upon returning to Canada, I asked to be “tested for everything.” My doctor’s phone call to the university common room informing me of my new “status” was a shock. As I put down the receiver, my hopes for a future as a development worker seemed dashed. I took the bus home to lie in bed and die.

But I did not die. Instead, I reached out for help and was pulled back on my feet by HIV support groups in Vancouver. I listened to my new peers’ brave pioneering stories, and together we mourned our annual losses of friends and loved ones. On World AIDS Day in 1988, we marched silently through the streets of Vancouver, enduring hateful shouts and spitting from those we passed.

A few years later, I represented myself at the Tax Court of Canada to demand that the cost of the vitamins and supplements that kept me alive be allowed as medical expenses. I included in my case the costs of Therapeutic Touch, a healing technique for facilitating strength from within that helped me deal with both the symptoms of my HIV and the emotional losses I felt. The court ruled in my favour and now people living with HIV in Canada can claim these medical costs on their personal income tax return.

After my victory in court, I continued my return to active community life. I played soccer, ran and built my dream home on Saltspring Island, off the coast of British Columbia. I volunteered for African causes and worked on sustainable development, land claims and community planning.

ONE DAY IN 1989, on the ferry to Vancouver, I met an amazing man named Dave, who invited me to share dinner and his home-baked pie. I still remember our first kiss. I stopped to announce that I was HIV positive. He responded: “I have two choices. I can leave now and never get to know you, or I can love you for as long as we have together. Let me kiss you.”

Dave had an airplane adapted for short takeoffs, with skis for landing on snow and ice. He was also the proud new owner of a small farm beside a grass airstrip. He loved adventure, and adventure in an airplane is magic! We landed on remote beaches and walked on ancient glaciers. We even flew from Saltspring Island to Miami one winter, dodging hurricane-force winds along the way.

Life was perfect until the shadow of HIV began to darken my life. First it stole my energy, then my ability to do the recreational activities I enjoyed. Next it took my job and, ultimately, my feeling of worth. I was unable to find the energy to even write, paint or draw. It seemed I had little time left. In 1994, after being assigned to palliative care, I was sent home from the hospital to die with dignity.

Dave was an optimist, assuring me that I would overcome this illness. I wasn’t sure. We planned one last adventure together. At that time, it was illegal for people who were HIV positive to enter the United States. Regardless, we headed through Los Angeles to Belize — a sick woman in a wheelchair and a healthy man.

Our destination was a shack on a remote coral reef. The island, less than a mile long, had recently been whipped by hurricane winds and was almost deserted. The utter simplicity of life, the coconut milk, the incredible snorkelling and a sense of awe rekindled my soul. After two weeks, I was swimming a mile to see octopus, lobsters and frog fish. Phoenix-like, I rose from the ashes.

At home on Saltspring Island, I continued to recover. We had two more happy years, and then in May 1997, Dave died in an accident at work. Why had I lived while he, the healthy one, died? I struggled to understand life and death. I read, wrote poetry, learned to sculpt and attended workshops on grief and loss. Therapeutic Touch remained central to my life, keeping me grounded. (I have since become a Therapeutic Touch practitioner and still practice and offer workshops.)

I REMEMBERED my happy days in Zimbabwe while listening to news of a government gone mad. By now, it was the early 2000s and the “Jewel” was losing its economic lustre due to political issues around land reform, an extended drought and what I saw as greed among the country’s leaders.

Reports on rising rates of HIV infection across sub-Saharan Africa reminded me that I had something in common with my African sisters and brothers. I decided to use HIV to connect positively with African communities. I started by informing myself and others about the growing pandemic in Africa. I also lobbied Canadian officials for universal access to medication in Africa.

My efforts grew and in 2006, with the help of friends and an energetic new partner, I cofounded the non-governmental organization positively AFRICA. Our goal was and still is to link people in Canada to grassroots African community groups working for change. We focus on those groups without any other source of support and try to assist them until they find stable, sustainable help.

Funds delivered through positively AFRICA provide food, healthcare and other essentials — and along with them, dignity to HIV-positive people. The support also brings hope to struggling local grassroots organizations. Dignity and hope are critical to keeping the flame of life burning.

Over the years, I have returned to Africa a few times, visiting Rwanda, Kenya, South Africa, Lesotho and Zimbabwe. During my trips I have seen that my African peers and I are alike in many ways. We have known abuse, struggled to overcome depression and have seen a future where doctors have not. I have met Africans with incredible courage and undying hope. Despite the shortage of water, food and shelter, heroic local leaders continue to work together to create strong partnerships. My openness about being HIV positive for more than 20 years remains a powerful message for those who equate AIDS with stigma and death.

AS A WOMAN living with HIV in Canada, I have the freedom to be open about my HIV status. I have power in my relationships and receive a disability income that covers my basic life expenses. The realities of Africa keep me humble. I try to imagine being a young Maasai girl, cut ceremonially as I entered the world of womanhood. Could I follow an older man — a husband chosen for me while I was still in my mother’s womb — to a strange village, to become his third wife? Would I be able to plow fields by hand and carry enough water to keep my family alive? Could I do this while battling HIV?

To Africans — and to my Canadian peers — I respectfully offer my skills, including Therapeutic Touch workshops and sessions, and I spread awareness of HIV. In exchange, women have shared their experiences: rape and torture in Rwanda, fear and beatings in Lesotho and Kenya, abandonment in South Africa and the systematic destruction of infrastructure in Zimbabwe. In my eyes, all of these experiences are linked to domination (either colonial or patriarchal) and, ultimately, they underlie the HIV pandemic.

We learn from one another and grow from each other’s strength. Through sharing our stories, hope passes back and forth between us. When I leave a workshop and I know that people are feeling enlightened and empowered with the tools to live longer, I smile.

Photo: Sharon Channer