We should be getting tested now more than ever

MTV Shuga made its return to African television on the 27th of March 2017, the “Down South” team made their way to Nairobi for a special Season 5 premiere. Those who have been following the show since its inception in 2009 will know that Nairobi is where it all began for the “Shugafam”.

The premiere in Nairobi was very exciting and it was great to see old cast members from previous seasons at the event. The stories and memories from the first two seasons came back to mind. It was really good to see them come through and support the season.

Listening to the actors talk about how they feel about the show, how they are excited about it and how being a part of the show actively influenced their habits and actions was amazing. Nick Mutuma (Who made his season 5 debut at the end of last week) admitted that after season 1 the male cast all went to get tested for the first time.

The show has changed the lives of many people around the world and has encouraged young people to be more open about certain taboo topics, especially HIV and AIDS.

Growing up in the 90’s, images of people suffering from HIV and AIDS were all over our media. On TV and in the newspapers, men and women alike, with their genders barely discernable because of immense weight loss, eyes large and sunken and loss of hair; were strewn across most major media outlets in a bid to make us all aware of the inevitable consequences of infection. The imagery did what it was supposed to. We were scared. I for one, knew I was going nowhere near a boy. My mother advised me not to look them in the eye until I was married. My father, took a more succinct approach. After I was done with high school, he took me upcountry to visit his elder sister who was on her death bed due to AIDS related complications. She looked just like those images I had seen so many times before and I vowed to stay a virgin until I was married.

In the early naughties, Voluntary Counselling and Testing centres (VCT’s) cropped up all over Nairobi and getting tested was a thing everyone did. Groups of friends would make a thing of it and go together, offering each other mental support, and more and more couples would make these trips every three months as recommended. I remember the first time I got tested, and being terribly anxious about the results despite the fact that I was still a virgin. I also remember making the trip with a new boyfriend a few years later, when we realized that we wanted to take things to the next level. Somehow that made us even closer, as though we’d faced the idea death together. Young love.

Fast forward a few years and things aren’t quite the same any ore. We aren’t as scared, I think, as we used to be and that could possibly be because ARVs have pretty much changed the face of living with HIV. Living positively, as it’s now referred to doesn’t look that bad, and because of this there has been a growing laxity in taking steps to protect ourselves.

I asked a few of my friends if going to a VCT was something they still do, and while most of them said they’d love to, they felt life gets hectic, work comes in the way, they don’t think people “look” like they could be infected, or they just keep forgetting to go. People now seem to be more afraid of getting pregnant, than they are of getting infected. They also assume that infection rates have gone down, so the risk is less.

Unfortunately, Kenya’s rate of new HIV infections has been steadily rising over the past decade, dramatically faster than in any other country in sub-saharan Africa (source). While the number of people dying has lessened, the number of new people living with HIV has risen and because we can no longer easily tell who’s infected, this is all the more reason to get tested, and regularly keep up with getting tested while actively protecting ourselves from the disease.