HIV Positive and Serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer

-Elizabeth Tunkle, RPCV, Zambia and Lesotho

When you join the Peace Corps, many people ask you why. I never had a very good answer. But the truth is something way down deep inside of me told me that is what I needed to do and I listened. I really had no idea what I was getting into. I thought 2 years would go by in a flash and I would come home better for having gone so far from home and for having done such a noble thing. Two years did not go by in a flash and I came home changed but not how I thought I would.

I started out my service in Zambia and after getting posted to my village, as I was settling in, I met my future boyfriend. When we started dating, I asked him if he had been tested for HIV. He told me yes. He told me his test was negative just 1 year before and he had not had unprotected sex since his last test. We mutually decided it would be safe for us to use birth control and not condoms. We were wrong. Despite the fact that I knew all about HIV prevention I had unprotected sex with him anyway.

A few weeks later, I decided we should get tested. I had a bad feeling. I tried telling myself that it couldn’t be me. I was going to be fine. Too many times in my life I had played with all kinds of fire and survived. Not me. I was too nice and honest and fun and giving and I practiced yoga and meditation. We get bonus points in life for being good, right? No, I guess we don’t. HIV doesn’t just choose mean people or people who tell lies. It turned out it chose me. We found out my boyfriend was positive and that I was also infected. As if that news isn’t devastating enough, the Peace Corps told me I had to go home and that I would not be able to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer anymore, anywhere. I was too shocked to fully understand what was happening, but I did feel like the Peace Corps was acting contrary to what they teach us. “Fight the virus not people with it.” “Treat people with HIV just like you would treat anyone else.” But yet, here I was going home. I felt like a weed that had been violently ripped out and was being thrown away.

I was shocked and traumatized and had to pack up my things and say goodbye to my life in Zambia. I felt like a failure. I had come to teach prevention and here I was infected. I was asking myself that why question all over again. Why did I come to Zambia, did I come to ruin my life? Who did I think I was coming over to Africa to tell people how to live? I didn’t even know the meaning of my own words.

PC Washington told me that I would be evaluated and then separated. I asked my nurse who worked for PC if it was possible for me to continue to serve and she said no. If I was positive I would have to be separated. However, after I had been home for a month PC changed its mind. Why? My friend was digging around on the Internet and found a story about another volunteer who had been sent home earlier that year because of an HIV infection. He felt like his rights had been violated and had asked the ACLU to help him out. ACLU went to the PC and told them that their policy discriminated against people with HIV and they needed to be more accommodating (see our August 2008 article for information about the Jeremiah Johnson case and changing Peace Corps policy related to PCVs with HIV.) They just told me they were considering clearing me. Everyone seemed to agree that I was physically and mentally well enough to go back.

It was suggested that my asthma was reason enough to keep me from going back to Zambia but I could go to Lesotho if I wanted. I was faced with a big decision. At first, I was not given a choice and now I was. What did I want to do? It seemed like a difficult decision at the time but I think I knew all along that I wanted to finish. That I was not going to let some illness or my shame stop me from returning to do the work I had set out to do. I even had a hint of an idea that I could do it better the second time around. So I said yes!

I was in a plane flying to a new country in Africa. Lesotho was going to be my new home. I arrived and met a whole new group of staff and volunteers. I made the most of my new home and my new family. I started making friends but I kept my status to myself. I felt alienated for having to keep such a heavy secret. I wasn’t sure I wanted to share my status at all. I felt too vulnerable and I wasn’t sure how I would be received. After only 2 months in Lesotho, I went to a volunteer training session. Volunteers were struggling with the emotional toll of living in a country where so many people were infected. We had a session to talk about it. I sat in knowing that no one in the room knew about me. One guy shared, “I found out my counterpart was positive and I am trying to give him support and but it is emotional for me to know.” They were all being so honest and I wanted to run out of the room screaming. After so many people had shared, our director said, “One good thing about all this is that you have each other. We are all in the same boat.” I then did run out of the room screaming. Well, ok, not screaming. I walked actually. But I left the session early and went to the medical office and talked to the only people who did know. “I am not in their boat,” I said. I felt even lonelier and more left out than I had before and I hadn’t thought that was possible.

After I calmed down a bit, I went to see the Country Director. I told him I had been thinking and I wanted to share my status with all of the Peace Corps Volunteers, all 87 of them. We were going to have an All-Volunteer conference in January and I wanted to have a session all to myself to share my story. I knew I couldn’t keep it a secret and this way I could control how the information got to them. I would not be gossip. I would just tell them. So, January of this year (2009) marked my big coming out ceremony. The day of my talk, I was terrified. I knew that I was going to be taking my most personal and private reality and laying it bare for everyone to see. I started my talk with a news article about the ACLU case against the Peace Corps. Then, I told them my story. I told them I knew better than to have sex without a condom. I told them I knew all the things they know that make them feel immune and I still got infected. In the end I asked them to make good use of me. I was the first infected person in service and I wanted to tell people what happened to me so that maybe they could learn from my mistake and not repeat it. That was, after all, why I returned to Africa

They started using me immediately. I went to a Diversity Camp in Butha-Buthe district. 20 something teenagers came together to learn to be more accepting of the differences around them. I was one of the key speakers. I asked them to brainstorm words that came into their mind when they heard “HIV.” “Don’t censor yourselves. Just say what ever comes to mind. Good or bad!” They did. I heard words like prostitute and sex, anger and fear, stigma and blood. We made a long list. And then I told them my story. I told them everything. They were teenagers and statistics said they were all probably having sex already. They really listened. Afterwards, they asked me questions. One woman asked me, “How do you have so much courage to stand up in front of us and tell us these things?” I just looked back at the list we made and said, ”If I feel too afraid to speak about this to all of you then I let this list define me. I refuse to let this illness keep me locked up in my own world of shame. And if by sharing my story with you, maybe one of you rethinks having unprotected sex then I have accomplished something out of this.” For the first time, I felt like I hadn’t become infected for nothing. Maybe this happened to me so that I could share it with people. Maybe it had a purpose in my life.

I did that many more times in my time in Lesotho. I went to 4 Diversity Camps. I spoke at schools and youth centers. I had one audience as big as 140 students. I spoke to peer educators, youth groups, and students. I spoke to primary schools and secondary schools. I even traveled 2 days up into the mountains to speak to a HIV+ support group about a healthy way to deal with hard and dark emotions. People really heard me. I felt connections with the people of Lesotho like I had never felt in Zambia. People came and shared their stories back with me. They asked me questions and invited me to their homes. I felt the force of belonging to a community.

I spent my second year of the Peace Corps speaking my truth over and over again. The fact is none of that would have been possible if it weren’t for the courage of other Volunteers who stood up to the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps did something they had never done before and let me, an HIV+ volunteer serve out my time in Africa. I received more from sharing my story than I could have ever given to the people of Lesotho. I think the Peace Corps is like that. We go to far away lands to give of ourselves, to help, to make something better but it is the people who house us and love us and work beside us that truly give to us. They gave me a sense of purpose. They made me believe that something good could come out of getting a very scary, chronic illness diagnosis. And I believe that it did. I would never had asked to become infected with HIV but without it the community of people living with the virus around the world would be just out of reach and I want to connect. I want to cross over the line that separates and make a connection. So here I find myself. My service is complete. I am back in America. I served my country. I told my story. Somehow I think I answered my “why.” The work I did as a volunteer in Zambia was forever on the outside looking in. Later, infected in Lesotho I felt as though I had stepped through an invisible barrier and was welcomed with open arms.

Elizabeth can be contacted at elizabethtunkle@yahoo.com.

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