Njoko not giving up
“You can’t tell by looking”, the slogan goes. When you look at Musa Njoko, the smile, the exuding charm and feisty vibrance of the petite woman mask the presence of HIV/AIDS.The South African gospel singer, businesswoman and inspirational speaker has been HIV positive since 1994, has twice approached death’s door and even heard her death sentence pronounced by a doctor once. in a remarkable stance of faith and resilience, she has become a voice for countless women who are still afraid to speak about the issues of rape, abuse and HIV. On a visit to Barbados earlier this week, Njoko shared her story with the Weekend Nation.She was just 22, in the year of South Africa’s independence from white minority rule, when she got the dreaded news that she was HIV-positive and had just three months to live.“It simply meant I was not going to be part of that crossing over to that new land of freedom. There was no information at all except that it was known as a disease for people who had multiple partners, a disease for gay people and for people who were sex workers. I did not belong to any of those groups, and I had no reason to be concerned about HIV.” Not even the three-month relationship in which she confesses she suffered emotional and physical abuse gave any indication of the likelihood that she could be infected.Yet she said, “I got it through forced sex in that relationship”, and to her dismay, she later discovered it to be an intentional act on the part of her partner who was aware of his own HIV status.“As young as I was, I was faced with a life and death situation, but actually it was more death than life. In that three months my doctor told me to get my life right with God.” She told of rejection and the order to cease participation in activities in the church where she had been a full-time member for years, singing in the choir, though she had not revealed her HIV status to anyone. The congregation guessed it from the telltale swollen glands around the neck, significant loss of weight, and severe asthma attacks.“I waited . . . three, four months, I waited for death.“I would make sure that I rested properly in my bed, put my arms on my chest just to make sure that at least in my coffin I would look decent,” Njoko recalled. “It was very lonely and very emotionally draining and quite sad. I felt rejected by people, but more than that I felt rejected by God.”Such rejection was also felt at home in the polygamous Durban family in which she was raised.“My father had two wives, and at the time I was living with my stepmum. I usually say I never had to go to a drama school because I was born into my family drama, and so bringing an HIV situation into that kind of family, I could not tell anyone that I had HIV. “It was just going to complicate that situation. My mum is the second wife. Support from my mum and my siblings I never doubted that, but I just knew it was just going to be so much drama.”The day she felt she was really going to die, she dragged her dwindling frame into a wardrobe for what she decided “would be my last prayer, my last conversation with God”. “I wanted to just say to God, ‘I understand that I have disappointed you, but I also need you to understand my disappointment because as far as I know I have done everything by the book’. “I know where I have gone wrong. The Bible tells me you forgive all things and you forget them. But in my case it does not look like you have forgotten, so I am doubtful about everything that I have read in the word . . . that you forget but seemingly you don’t forget – you punish”.She was praying quietly, sheltered from the eyes and ears of a stepmother who had grown tired of her illness and was showing some irritation. Njoko tells of being led by the Holy Spirit through those prayers, to the Book of Job, spending hours reading from Chapters 1 to 42. “In that time I experienced a reconnection with God and realised that God had not left me, and that he was nothing that we have made him to be as people.” She prayed for “a Job experience” and got it. That wardrobe session was the turning point. She returned to her bed and entered a 14-day fast, during which she experienced even more severe illness. Unbelievably, on the 15th day the porridge she requested stayed down in her stomach. So, too, did the soup which followed. In the ensuing days and weeks, physical and emotional strength gradually returned, to the point where she was eventually able to return to her church to ask for compassion from the leadership. She did not find the welcome for which she hoped, however. After a difficult exchange of words, and an uncompromising response, she left that church for good.She approached one newspaper to tell her story. The result was a coming out of one of the first women to publicly disclose her HIV-positive status to the world.“Since that time, I started speaking out about being HIV-positive. In the medical community I was asking, how can I be told that I have a deadly, incurable disease when no one had ever taken time to even tell people of my mom’s age that there was this kind of disease and this is how you can prevent it? How do you just come and tell me you are going to die, just find a way to die?” she questioned.This brave woman with a strong passion for living has encountered and beaten other serious challenges since that first HIV diagnosis. In 2000 she was stricken with meningitis, and for the first time faced the stark reality of having to live with AIDS. Laid up for six months, she recovered.She was forced to start taking antiretroviral drugs in 2002, following a devastating bout with bone-marrow TB. Faced with death for the second time, with everyone else around her crying in despair and with questions being asked about her will and arrangements for the care of her young son, Njoko refused to accept the thought of death.Three months after full recovery from this illness, tragedy struck again – her right arm was almost completely severed in a car accident. With faith, she told surgeons, “attach the parts back and leave the rest to God”. After three surgeries, she has been forced to switch to the left hand, limited use of the right hand only affording the ability to hold the microphone to share her testimony of hope.Music has always been a major part of Njoko’s advocacy. In 2002 she did her first recording. The 1 000 free copies were immediately snapped up. Today income from her record sales goes largely to fund her HIV causes. She travels extensively, making her voice heard at conferences, counselling victims, witnessing to congregations, ministering to victims of HIV/AIDS. On Sunday, July 26, at 6 p.m. Musa Njoko will share her inspiring story and message of hope in a free concert at the Abundant Life Assembly.