Tino’s story: AIDS and the perils of a double life in Zimbabwe

From Zimbabwe, a special correspondent to the Erasing 76 Crimes blog contributes this story about Tino, a man who plans to get married to his fiance but also has sex with men. In one study of three southern African nations, Tino’s situation — in a stable relationship with a woman — is representative of a third of all men who have sex with men. 

(Tino is not his real name, because Zimbabwe is not a safe place for an LGBT person to be open about one’s sexual orientation.)

South for the summer

Location of Zimbabwe and South Africa

Location of Zimbabwe and South Africa

Tino is slowly packing his bags as he agrees to share his story with me after having been referred to me by a friend.

He is frail and in need of medical attention, which he admits as he slowly breathes words out of his thin, scarlet-rimmed lips. Occasionally he breaks into a remarkable smile that’s accompanied by twinges of pain.

“I know for a fact that there are friendly doctors here who can diagnose me without me being embarrassed or exposed, but I have finally come to terms with the fact that medical attention in a friendlier environment is best,” says Tino.

He is a young Zimbabwean who has a pretty girlfriend but also goes out with men.  He does not identify himself as gay. Rather, he’s in the MSM demographic  of men who have sex with men.

Tino believes that getting local medical assistance for what he suspects is a rectal sexually transmitted infection (STI) would raise the risk that his family, and most especially his fiancée, would learn about his double life.

“How do you explain that you have an anal sexually transmitted infection? And the doctors always insist on bringing in your partner or at least informing her that you have an STI so you are tested or at least treated together. That’s I why decided to go and spend some time with a friend who ‘knows’ about me down south (in South Africa) until I get treatment,” he says.

“To be honest, it is the embarrassment to be diagnosed as having a rectal infection. That worries me since I would be obviously going to a family doctor who has treated my family and I since I was a child,” he admits.

While violations of doctor-patient confidentiality hardly ever an issue amongst the health practitioners in Zimbabwe, Tino is not taking any risks. He would rather make the trip down to neighbouring South Africa whose gay-friendly laws are guaranteed in the constitution.

“It is a much safer bet,” he says.

Two gay men in Cameroon (Photo by Eric Lembembe)By using his annual leave for this trip, Tino has adequate “cover” to conceal his need for medical care before he returns to his double life in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, where he lives and works.

The problem of criminalization

Zimbabwe is notorious for being amongst the 76 countries that outlaw and criminalise same-sex acts, with prison sentences guaranteed for those who transgress.

Many wonder why he has to return and not seek a life in neighbouring South Africa, where many of his friends and others in similar circumstances like him have moved.

He chuckles.

“I have to be back by October. For work. But also that is when my wedding is due,” he admits timidly.

And that is where the problem of criminalisation seems to come in. Although he is in the MSM demographic, he has what he believes is a “perfectly healthy” heterosexual relationship. With HIV most likely to be contracted and passed on as a sexually transmitted infection, being in the shadows as an MSM allows the spread of the disease across sexual orientations.

“There are no gated communities or a Noah’s Ark that ‘protects’ one sexual group from another,” I recall a delegate at an AIDS conference saying.  In this young groom-to-be, I come face to face with that fact.

And his partner?

Tino says, “I will make sure we are protected. Of course we engage in intercourse but I am telling her I do not want her to fall pregnant before we walk down the aisle, as we are members of a Pentecostal church and pregnancy before our wedding will shame us. At least that should buy me time to get things sorted and find an appropriate way of letting her know that she ought to get tested.”

“If I test negative I will get treatment for the STI and come back and lead a normal life with her. But I would have to tell her if I test positive now, shouldn’t I?” he asks, speaking to nobody in particular.

He takes me to his gate before I leave. Walking slowly. Often immersed in his own thoughts before suddenly breaking out to speak to me about his trip and his wish to buy a “quarter” when he gets to South Africa — half a loaf of bread stuffed with mango archaar (mango pickle), potatoes and other vegetables that South Africans seem to love.

He will shop for the ring too, he says.

Safe breeding ground for disease

In a country where HIV and AIDS are still virulent in the straight community but are being addressed there, it is people like Tino — people in the shadows — that represent the sector of society that is being ravaged by  HIV and AIDS at worst or simply sexually transmitted infections at best.

“There are no intervention methods being taught to this MSM / LGBTQI section of society, and that is worrying,” said a prominent HIV and AIDS activist and counsellor in the MSM community, who asked not to be named for fear of victimisation.

“Those who identify as gay and frequent the gays’ and lesbians’ communing centre get a lot of assistance. Many more who want to remain anonymous fall through the net,” she admits resignedly. She suggests that providing health services without being judgmental  is the only way to encourage testing and treatment of STIs amongst the MSM community.

“Health service providers ought to be sensitised,” she says. “The diseases and many other STIs are breaching the walls of prejudice that have been set up in our communities.”

She adds:

“For as long as government leads in homophobic chanting, discrimination shall always be there in the health services sector, few MSM will get tested and sexual infections shall always find a safe growth and breeding ground, whilst also spreading to the rest of the society — derailing efforts that are showing positives in treatment and prevention amongst pregnant mothers, the heterosexual community and other groups.”

It may be summer here in Zimbabwe, classified as a country with one of the best climates in the world, but Tino is getting ready to fly south and leave this amazing weather, if only for a month. He has to forgo the best climate in the world to get services that he could get  at home.

The difference is, down south, he will avoid prying eyes and judgmental health providers. His dignity and his privacy will be guaranteed.

“I cannot be more than safe, you know,” he says as he closes the gate between us. He is ready for the “migration.”

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