The First Step

Nearly 25 years ago, Magic Johnson stood at a podium and announced he had HIV and would be retiring from basketball.

At the time, I was just a teenager in Mozambique, well on her way to pursuing her own basketball career. I was as ignorant as most kids in my country about HIV. But I knew Magic saying he had the disease was a big moment. Up until that time, the societal disgrace surrounding the disease meant many people hid their own diagnosis, or would avoid finding out altogether.

In 1991, even in the U.S., there were a lot of misconceptions. It was scary to talk about, to think about, or to even acknowledge HIV. So you can only imagine how it was growing up in Mozambique, where the population suffered through an epidemic of HIV/AIDS.

Truth be told, in Mozambique, people just didn’t talk about it at all. They still don’t talk about it. If somebody dies — even if everybody knows they had HIV — they never say it. You never hear on the TV or read in the newspaper that someone “died of HIV.” It’s always a “long disease,” or “they were very ill.” As for sex education? Forget about it. You’re lucky if your mother was open enough to talk about it. It’s almost like living in a bubble, and if you’re not reading beyond what’s reported here, then you just don’t know about it. It’s almost like it’s a disease outside of our world.

That notion though, couldn’t be further from the truth, particularly for the youth of Mozambique.

Every year in Mozambique, 17,000 adolescents are newly infected while another 4,500 die. And perhaps most startling, three out of five people there have HIV and don’t even know it.

I often think about who would still be here if we had started talking about this awful disease years ago. I think about my uncle. I started playing basketball as a young girl, mostly because my mother’s brother was a star point guard. Through him, I also fell in love with the game. And after his own career ended, he became a coach and put me on the path to playing professionally. He was my inspiration in everything I did on the court. Without him, I’m not sure I’d have made it to the professional level.

When I was in the WNBA, I would return home during breaks in the season to see my family. In later years, my uncle was a different man. He developed a drug addiction and, likely through sharing needles, a case of HIV. He went from being this big-time athlete to spending nights in the locker room because he had no money. He was so stoned that after practice, he’d just get lost. Sometimes I’d see him on the street, begging for change.

Eventually, he went to rehab and got treatment. I’d visit and bring him a newspaper and we’d talk. He’d say how afraid he was to leave and possibly relapse and lose treatment. And that’s exactly what happened. He lost control of his life. He didn’t hide that he had HIV, but I do think he was just so ashamed that he let it get that far. He passed away about two years ago.

Magic’s announcement, I believe, altered the course of HIV awareness in the U.S. Of course, there still is a lot more work to do in America, but it’s come a long way since that day in November 1991. You can see that progress in Charlie Sheen’s own announcement last month.

Halfway across the world, however, my country is still dying and suffering in silence. Our mentality is where the U.S. was when Magic first announced: People are scared and afraid. All these years have passed and Mozambique is still no further along in eradicating or controlling this disease. Every day, we sign death sentences for the next generation because we will not talk about HIV.

Well, I’m talking about it now.

In fact, I’ll be walking as well. Next spring, I’ll be traveling across Mozambique for three months, walking 50 kilometers a day to start the conversation on HIV.

I’ve already spent much of this past year visiting students to educate them on HIV and just how widespread it is in our nation. They look at me like I’m crazy when I say to them, “Look around you, because three in five of you have HIV.”

I spoke to one 17-year-old boy about using condoms and practicing safe sex. And he said to me, “When I tell a girl, ‘Let’s use a condom,’ she looks at me and says, ‘I’m not a prostitute. Why do you need to protect yourself from me?’”

They don’t believe that it can happen. They think it’s an invented disease. They just don’t know.

And that’s because there is something more lethal than HIV in Mozambique, and that is the stigma surrounding the disease. People don’t get tested or seek treatment because they’re afraid of being criticized and ridiculed. Since HIV is a sexually transmitted disease, there is a mindset that it’s only prostitutes or sexual perverts who contract it. Many times, parents who have HIV will pass it on to their children and not even tell them they’re infected. So when those youth come of age and are having sex themselves, they continue to spread it unknowingly.

Even now that we have better treatment, many people still don’t seek it, especially those who live in rural parts of the country and need to travel hours and hours. Often they’re also the most at risk, because they live a traditional lifestyle of taking more than one wife. Others don’t even bother — even if they know they’re positive — because we don’t have the medical privacy that is honored in the U.S. They’re afraid their diagnosis will be made public, people will find out and they will live in shame.

So we need to fight the shame. I can no longer stand by and watch as thousands of lives are taken that could have been saved. For too long, we have let stigma suffocate people from getting tested and getting treatment.

I’m hopeful that we can bring change. Already you can see a shift in our country, beginning with our government. Our ministers for health, education and sport will be joining me at times during my walk. To have these officials there with me and publicly addressing HIV is something I don’t think would have been possible even five years ago. But this is a younger government, and they want to start making the difference that others before them could not or would not.

We’ll organize shorter walks for other people to walk with me. We’ll hold organized activities in schools and public places where we will motivate people to get tested. Together we will meet with people and encourage them to start having this conversation: That HIV is not a death sentence, and it isn’t something to be ashamed of.

My uncle isn’t the only person I know that had or has HIV. But he was so important in my life. It was painful to see someone who was always so encouraging and inspiring to slowly die like that.

And that’s the biggest realization these kids need to know. Whether it’s someone like Magic, who has gone on to live a long and healthy life, or my uncle, who didn’t get the help he needed, HIV doesn’t choose people. It doesn’t screen black-white or rich-poor.

I don’t know how the next generation will live if this continues to be ignored. Mozambique won’t be a third-world country just because it’s poor, but also because it’s one of the sickest countries in the entire world. It has to change. There is no other way.

Walk with me. Talk with me.

To learn more about Clarisse’s work, her upcoming walk and how to get involved, visit the Clarisse Machanguana Foundation.