Stigma around people living with HIV still looms in Botswana, more so for those in the LGBT+ community. However, 21-year-old Pontsho Sekisang, HIV and LGBTI+ activist, is using his reality to humanise the attitudes around people living with HIV.
Botswana is one of many African countries largely affected by HIV, having the third highest HIV rate in the world, with a prevalence rate of 21.9%. This is according to the HIV education NGO, AVERT. While the government provides free, universal, antiretroviral treatment to anyone living with HIV, low testing rates coupled with a lack of holistic information on the virus contribute to the stigma surrounding HIV. This seriously hampers any strides made towards wholly understanding the virus and being able to look at people living with HIV with the dignity that they deserve.
Discrimination affects society – and society is characterised by people. Such discrimination impacted 21-year-old LGBT+ activist Pontsho Sekisang, a proud, gay man living with HIV. Born on the 26th of March in 1997, Sekisang spent much of his childhood with his mom and sister in the then fairly peaceful city of Gaborone. He describes himself as a delightful and cheerful child, spending more time playing with girl-children than boys. “I was more interested in things that other boys didn’t like,” he says.
Things took a slight turn when he moved to Thamaga. While relocation is difficult for any child, for an effeminate young boy things are worse. Because of how he expressed himself, Sekisang struggled to find acceptance in this community. “Moving to Thamaga was very hard,” he says. “I had to find new friends and [the] village kids weren’t too understanding of my girly attitude. I went through a lot of discrimination, from boys mostly.”
Although he was only 12, his self-motivating nature assisted him greatly in adjusting to his new environment. He also befriended a female teacher who offered him support. She saw him through his last year in primary school right through his high school career. These years would become a formative time in the self-discovery of his sexual identity.
Sekisang realised that he really wasn’t into women but didn’t think anything significant of it. He didn’t think of himself as different in any way. He just assumed that he was a girl with a penis, or maybe, female inside. It was only in junior secondary school that he established his sexual orientation.
In the same manner in which he felt no different to his classmates, he too found nothing strange about making romantic advances on boys. While this lead to him better understanding the sexuality spectrum, it was a lesson learnt aggressively. In some instances, there would be hurtful remarks hurled at him, like the one he received from his school’s Head Boy, “ngwanyana o nang le ditedu (a bearded girl)”.
Sometimes he was blamed for the country’s drought. As part of Botswana’s general cultural spirituality, rain is seen as a form of wealth or prosperity. If it doesn’t rain, it is a sign that the divine beings are angry at their people. Though people met his sexuality with violent remarks, Sekisang was excited by the idea that he could be the only gay boy in junior school. However, when dawn turned to dusk and he was alone with his thoughts, some of the harsh things people said to him would recite themselves in his mind, affecting his self-esteem.
Due to the complexities of puberty he navigated casual relationships and flings until he completed his studies. But that didn’t mean he never fell in love. Just as he was writing his final exams in the last year of high school, he fell in love with a man who was in a polyamorous relationship. “I first fell in love when I was sitting for my BGCSE with some guy who was involved with a girl on the side because he was bisexual. The relationship did not go anywhere because he couldn’t divide his love between the two of us,” he said.
Sekisang later got involved with another man of his age. They didn’t share the same values and beliefs about monogamy. It ended shortly after. He remained single for a while before meeting someone fairly older than him. They pursued a romantic relationship which is when Sekisang learnt of his . He was 19 years old.
Sekisang admits that it was a harrowing moment. A few months after his discovery and speaking to his partner about it, he encouraged them to go for couples testing. Unfortunately, that would not be enough to keep them together, and the relationship would see its end a few months down the line.
His aspirations also took on a different direction. While he had considered becoming a fashion designer in high school, he now wants to change attitudes and perceptions about HIV and homosexuality through meaningful advocacy.
Today he affirms himself as a strong, young, LGBT+ advocate living with HIV. He aspires to pursue his studies in a course relating to health sciences around the virus. He’s aiming for an enriched career as a motivational speaker encouraging young people. Sekisang hopes that his story and advocacy will help the youth access an enhanced, more humanised, and more sensitised information regarding HIV.