Am I African, African-Scottish, a Migrant living with HIV in Scotland, or a Global Citizen?
By Hosanna Bankhead
My name is Hosanna Ndoro-Bankhead. I have lived in Scotland for the past 14 years since coming here from my native Zimbabwe. I was the last of nine children born to a rural policeman in what was then Rhodesia. In his job my father frequently encountered gender based violence among the traditional communities where he worked, often resulting in fatalities. He was adamant that myself and my four sisters would be educated and independent in order to escape this life.
So, from an early age, we were all sent to Missionary boarding schools where we acquitted ourselves quite well. By the late 60s and early 70s we were all of an age for tertiary education and dad wanted this to be in the UK, as he very much believed in British education system. So, in the mid-70s, I found myself on a plane bound for the United Kingdom to study and join two of my sisters who were based in Cardiff. I enrolled at Barry College of Further Education for an Ordinary National Diploma in Business Studies.
Remember, I was coming from a country which did not recognise me as a full citizen due to the colour of my skin. The only avenues available to such as me were teaching and nursing. So doing Business Studies was quite a novel idea. But even the UK in the 70s was not easy for three young African women. We encountered quite open racism in everyday life and finding accommodation in Cardiff was particularly difficult and in the end we were helped by previous Asian immigrants.
"I was coming from a country which did not recognise me as a full citizen due to the colour of my skin."
Fast forward a year or so, and I passed my OND with flying colours and was able to get a scholarship to study at Bradford University, doing a BSc in Business Studies. However the euphoria of Zimbabwean independence in 1980 tempted many in the diaspora and caught up in the excitement, I arranged to complete my degree in Zim and in great expectation left UK in 1981 to go back home. We all looked forward to the freedom we were finally going to experience as a people. However Zimbabwe’s subsequent trials and ultimate disillusionment is a story for another day.
In 1982, I completed my Batchelor’s degree in Business Studies from the University of Zimbabwe and landed my first job in International Marketing selling, of all things, asbestos fibre. This saw me travelling the world and having a lot of fun. This was of course long before the discovery of the deadly health effects of the mineral. Marketing chose me, I did not choose it, - it suited my personality, as I am a people’s person and love to communicate (my husband would say blether) and learn as much as I can.
Towards the latter part of the 80s the original euphoria began to fade; I realised that things were not going well in my country and I was not really thriving. I was also finding it very difficult to negotiate relationships, as I was one of those women who really wanted to be in a marriage. Culture was playing a big part in this as my idea of what I should and should not be doing made me at odds with my own people. My time away had somehow turned me into “Not one of us”.
It all came to a head one day when a niece visited from New York and said “What are you doing in Zimbabwe, there is no future for anything here?” “Why not join me in New York and look for a job there”. This struck a chord and three months later I had resigned my job and was en route JFK to see what the USA could offer me - Travel restrictions were a lot easier in those days.
Within a short time I found a job as an office administrator in the Zimbabwe Mission to the United Nations. They were willing to sponsor me and so I could stay in the USA as long as I wanted. This job taught me a whole bunch of new skills such as typing, report writing for officers and attending meetings in the United Nations if there were plenary sessions. This is where I learnt that there are no permanent enemies or friends, but interests. But the marketing urge was never far away and after five years I quit and went into selling corporate health insurance, which taught me another side of the American lifestyle.
"My idea of what I should and should not be doing made me at odds with my own people."
At the Zimbabwe mission I met Winston and we got married in January of 1994. He was a divorcee with two young girls and that suited me very well as I now considered myself past child bearing age and once I was married no one would ever again have cause to ask me when was I going procreate – in African Culture when a woman marries, children are mandatory. Winston was a typical African man and after his stint as a diplomat in United Nations ended, he decided he wanted to go home and settle. I found myself once again heading to Zimbabwe and though I had my reservations, I wanted this marriage to work.
So come 1996 we packed our bags and furniture and off we went back to Harare where my fears were soon realised. Things were not working too well in Zim. The economy was faltering and people were losing their jobs. I was fortunate enough to get a good job with NCR as Customer Liaison Manager. It came with generous benefits but there was the ever present fear of not being in a job the next day. All around big companies were closing or downsizing.
The inevitable happened in 1998 and that is when I decided to go it alone as an Insurance Broker. The business went well but my husband’s health was by now deteriorating alarmingly. He was diagnosed with TB which for me immediately raised a red flag. I asked him if we could go for HIV testing which he flatly refused to do, and now from my own experience I understand why. It was the fear of knowing and then what? Stigma was high during those days in our communities, as people would immediately start speculating when you were going to die and each day brought a new batch of funerals. The immense isolation that one goes through just knowing one’s HIV status. As Edwin Cameron writes in his book ‘Witness to AIDS’, this is something that is acquired in the most intimate and passionate place in our lives which then slowly manifests itself as a then incurable disease. People in my community would not even drink water from the same glass as you. It was a dark time in my life as I saw many many people dying needlessly because the government in my country had hidden their heads in the sand.
I had to close my business to look after Winston and in September 2002 he died of full blown AIDS. In March 2003, worn out and not feeling particularly well, I got on the plane and came to the United Kingdom to visit my sister, then a nurse in London. To remain in Zimbabwe, I knew, would mean my own demise. My mindset was simple, without available treatment , testing served no purpose. Maybe my sister could help. I came on a visitors’ visa and was naively hoping that I could work for a while, get some medication, then go back home and move on with my life. Little did I realise that I was never again to be a permanent resident of my country of birth.
I arrived at Heathrow very disoriented and ill. My sister, being a nurse, decided to go to the hospital and get antibiotics to give me as she said it was not safe for me to go there in person, as I would be deported. She was ill informed of course but I was frightened and took her at her word.
In April 2003, after life in London became difficult with my worsening helth I moved to Edinburgh to visit a relative, and to my eternal surprise have been here ever since. Soon after arrival I finally plucked up the courage to go to the Sexual Health Clinic and get myself tested. The result was not a surprise but once you have a confirmed diagnosis, you know with great certainty that your life has changed forever. After giving me the news, my Consultant, who 14 years later still holds a special place in my heart, told me that my prognosis was poor. I had at best 18 months to live and should I go back to Zimbabwe I would inevitably succumb to AIDS.
And so began my typically tortuous immigration process. I will not discuss it here except to say that I am now happily British, or is that African British or even African Scottish? To use the first phrase that every incomer to Scotland learns as an all purpose answer to every question “I dinnae ken”. On a recent trip to a friend’s wedding an African immigration officer firmly asserted that I was Zimbabwean no matter the passport.
"HIV stigma was high during those days in our communities, as people would immediately start speculating when you were going to die. Each day brought a new batch of funerals. The immense isolation that one goes through just knowing one’s HIV status."
I braced myself to accept my diagnosis. It has taken a long time for me to get to where I am now. With a personality like mine (that blether factor again), it was difficult to remember whom I had told and who did not know , so I decided from then on that I needed to live as openly as a person living with HIV. Everyone who encounters me will get to know about my status at some point in our journey together. I found it a lot easier to navigate my life that way. I joined women’s groups being run by local and national charities who organised various activities for people living with HIV , and for me the turning point was the Leicester Conference, which I think, took place in 2004. There were over 600 people living with HIV gathered in one place and I learnt a lot, realised I could go far with HIV, it did NOT need to define me. My goal was to learn as much as I could about my condition so I became a volunteer for some of these organisations. In the process I was learning about the culture of charities in Scotland and picking up good practices from them.
Then I made the decision to go back to university. Like many immigrants, the jobs I was doing were low level and unfulfilling but needs must , they put food on the table and what I had left helped support the family back in Zimbabwe. So I enrolled at Edinburgh Napier to study MBA in International Marketing Strategy with the hope that one day I would go back home and use my education for business.
During my tenure as a volunteer at Waverley Care, I met a woman who would change the whole course of my career and I hope she does not mind me mentioning her here. Oonagh O’Brien told me about a course at Queen Margaret University – an MSc. In Social Development and Health, and asked me to apply. This I did. Oonagh then facilitated for me to get a scholarship. Doing that course was one of the most pivotal moments in my life because it took me into a new world of development, gender, HIV and health. I am here today because of that course.
"I decided that I needed to live as openly as a person living with HIV. Everyone who encounters me will get to know about my status at some point in our journey together. I found it a lot easier to navigate my life that way."
My first assignment as a paid person within the HIV sector was with Terrence Higgins Trust, as a researcher tasked with a report on MSM in the Highlands. This opened a completely new world to me. As a researcher you have to really understand your subject. And for me being African and traditionally conservative, for all my UK and US experience, this was a real eye opener. I had never heard of men who have sex with men, let alone the issues they face in this country. It was a steep learning curve and in the process I met some phenomenal people. Eventually I was employed by THT as a Health Trainer, a job which I did for 3 years and which saw me travelling the length and breadth of Scotland.
Several years ago I came to the realisation that the HIV third sector was failing to reach out to the African community. The one size fits all approach was not working as best it could. Africans in desperate need were not engaging with service providers, put off by people not speaking their language, understanding their culture or , dare I say it, a “mother knows best” attitude. So I decided to do something about it and with two other liked minded individuals founded Hwupenyu Health and Wellbeing Project. Everyone within the organisation either employee or volunteer either lives with HIV or has been affected by it so we are peer led and judge no-one . There are about seven languages spoken amongst us and we have a strong cultural bond with our clients. Hwupenyu was formed, not to compete with other organisations, but to complement what already exists in the market and to give African people choice of where they want to go to for support.
Hwupenyu currently offers free massage to all people living with HIV. Research has shown that massage reduces stress and anxiety and allows people to connect with other human beings in a nurturing way, especially if they are living in isolation. Hwupenyu has seen the number of people accessing this service rise exponentially since the start of the organisation. The sessions are by appointment on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Hwupenyu has also initiated a small food bank. Some of our clients who are destitute would come to the office and speak about not being able to find food as they do not have any recourse to public funds. Most of them cannot find jobs, some due to ill health and others through simply being ignored in the current environment. Even among those Africans who have jobs many cannot afford the basics. A report written by Eunice Sinyemu and Martha Baillie (2005) “HIV becomes your name”, showed that although many Africans had high qualifications, this did not correlate with employment. This still applies today. The young black woman coming daily to care for your granny may well have a degree. (BBC joke ?)
Hwupenyu offers welfare rights advice, health training, and day trips in the country and to places of interest for women and children.
"I realised I could go far with HIV. It did NOT need to define me."
Setting up Hwupenyu has not been easy, with many challenges. It was a struggle to get people to believe in the project and then for the established sector to take us seriously. There are still those around who want to believe that Africans need others to tell them what to do.
I do not fit the narrative of this country. I am an African and an immigrant, so what is it that I can do to help my own kind? Thankfully, there have been like minded others who have believed in me and have helped me in securing funding, the lifeblood of any charity. They have encouraged me and step by step we are beginning to be noticed. I am certain that we are gaining recognition not only as African immigrants but as people who deserve to be listened to and to whom resources can be channelled to assist our endeavours.
I would like to end by saying there is nothing wrong with failure, it means you have tried and if at first or second or third it doesn’t work, get up, dust yourself off and try again because eventually you will succeed. HIV is not a limitation, just look for the right door, push it open, and reach for the stars. ♦
HWUPENYU Health and Wellbeing Project is registered in Scotland under the Charity Number SC044991. Copyright 2017 www.hwupenyuproject.org. All Rights Reserved.