By Nathan Johnson
When Mercy Mukumba discovered she had human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), she made a vow that she would not surrender her life to the disease.
"You have to carry on," she said. "It's not the end of life. It's just a condition. If you know how to handle your condition, life goes on."
Mukumba, 62, has been staying in Vermillion for the last several months to care for her newborn grandchild, Eliana Mutinotida Chakawora, who was born in August. Mukumba's daughter, Kudzai, is a doctoral student at the University of South Dakota.
In January, Mukumba will return to her home in Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe.
Defying the temptation to feel sorry for herself, Mukumba has instead chosen to spread a message of love. Much of her time is spent educating dozens of children in Zimbabwe through the school she started several years ago.
During her time in South Dakota, she has spoken to groups about her experience living with HIV and attempted to give others hope.
It was in 2000 that Mukumba learned she had contracted HIV from her husband. He had gotten it from an extramarital affair.
"I said, 'God, I've been faithful to my husband, and I've been faithful to you,'" Mukumba said. "I think the virus is not going to kill me. I'm going to die in the proper way."
Mukumba's story is not unique in Zimbabwe, a country that is among the worst hit by the HIV and AIDS epidemic in Sub-Saharan Africa. An estimated 1,159,097 of Zimbabwe's 12.7 million residents were living with HIV and AIDS in 2011. Of those, an estimated 597,293 badly needed antiretroviral therapy.
Despite the number of people with HIV and AIDS, Mukumba said discrimination against those in Zimbabwe who have them is rampant.
"They are very looked down upon," she stated. "With me, I've decided to be open at my workplace and church, and in my community. I don't feel awkward when I'm around them. But a lot of people are still hiding, and because of their denial, they are dying. Some of them are dying because they can't reach out for medication because of poverty."
At the time Mukumba tested positive for HIV, she was getting a degree in counseling — mostly HIV counseling.
"It was a blessing," she said.
At first, Mukumba was angry with her husband, but eventually she forgave him. She said it was an important part of moving on with her life.
A book written by a couple living with HIV suggested talking to the virus as if it were a person. Mukumba said she has taken that approach.
"'OK, virus, you've come into me,'" she explained. "'We're co-habitating. If you kill me, you die. The best thing is for us to stay OK. You support me. I support you. Life will go on.' This is the attitude I've tried to adopt."
Mukumba said that, as long as she avoids stress, medication keeps the virus under control.
She said her husband never did get tested for HIV, nor did he want to know the results of her test in 2000.
"Let sleeping dogs lie," Mukumba recalls him saying. "Sometimes men have an ego, and they don't take advice from their wives."
On Feb. 10, 2008, he died from complications related to HIV.
Mukumba found herself with little money and no job. Prior to her husband's death, she had been working as a nanny in South Africa.
"I went to South Africa, picked up my things and came back home," she said.
On Feb. 7, 2009, Mukumba was sitting on her veranda trying to figure out how to put her life back together and care for her four children, who were born between 1973 and 1987. None of them have HIV.
"I heard the voices of little girls playing by the roadside," she stated. "I went to the gate and said, 'How are you, girls? What are you doing here? It's school time. You're not supposed to be playing here. You're supposed to be in school.'"
The two girls responded that their father had not gotten them placed in school, which can be very expensive in Zimbabwe.
Mukumba then got an idea — she could teach them.
She spoke to their father, and by Feb. 9 she had started a school in her home.
"A week later, there were two more," Mukumba recalled. "By the 11th day, I had seven children."
She now teaches 44 children out of her home and employs four teachers. Many of the students have HIV.
Some of the children have parents who can pay a fee, but Mukumba also seeks out orphans in her community with no means to pay.
"My wish now is to look for a place and build a structure so I can accommodate those who don't have homes and make it a boarding school for those who need it," she said. "That's my dream. If you educate a child, you educate the nation."
By extending love to others, Mukumba hopes it helps them find life a little more worthwhile — especially if they have HIV or AIDS.
" I would like to tell people they don't have to be discouraged if they find out they are HIV positive," she said. "They need to take care of themselves, change their lifestyles, take their medication regularly and have a clean mind. The biggest thing is, they need to change their lifestyle. If they keep on living a careless life, they will infect other people.
"Eat well, dress well, live well and pray well," Mukumba said. "God is there. Some people might not believe that, but for me, God is real. I know whenever things are hard, and I say, 'God, this is not for me,' He answers me."
For those wishing to learn more about Mukumba's school and how they can help her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.