HIV comedians

By Ray Mwareya

HIV stigma is deeply entrenched in Zimbabwe with the infection described in derogatory names and taking anti-retroviral pills considered a huge marker of social shame such that those faithful to their medication face verbal abuse. Even digital chatbots join the abuse in ugly sprees where HIV medication takers are stupidly derided as ‘passengers in a bus that’s about to plunge off a cliff”.

“Dehumanizing Jokes and Stigmatizing Language Are Impacting HIV Treatment and People Living With HIV in Zimbabwe,” I wrote in 2022.

However, real-time social tech like Facebook Live is enabling a new crop of young, progressive, digital-only comedians to confidently embrace their HIV-positive statuses, and rapidly deconstruct stigma at home and in the diaspora.

Two of them are ‘Mai Titi’ and ‘Tatelicious’ – very vocal Facebook Live comedians who are not shy of who they are.But first there is a reason why this is important. Zimbabwe is 8th in the world on the list of countries with the highest HIV infections as per data from the United Nations Aids (UNAIDs) and the risk of drug resistant HIV and Tuberculosis is expanding in Zimbabwe not because of shortage of medication but defaulting.

Real name Felistas Edwards – but popularly known as ‘Mai Titi’ to millions of her fans at home and abroad – ‘Mai Titi’ proudly disclosed her HIV status to the public in 2018 when she told her fans that she is proudly living with the condition. It was not easy, ‘Mait Titi’ told Zimbabwe’s leading Sunday newspaper “I have turned all my sorrows into jokes.” She quickly earned rapport and applause from thousands of her fans who hailed her positive message and portrayal of HIV as a treatable condition like any other chronic disease in modern times.

Next came ‘Tatelicious’, real name ‘Tatenda Karigambe’ a tough-taking Zimbabwe comedian exiled in Sweden. In 2020, Tatelicious disclosed that she has been HIV positive for a decade and half. “As an HIV Positive Celebrity, I have made it a mandate to tell all my fans about my HIV Positive status,” ‘Tatelicious’ told her fans of 17 years living with condition.

It is important to hear the stories of the lives of “Mai Titi’ and “Tatelicious”, a new crop of young, digital-only comedians in Zimbabwe who command millions of followers at home and abroad, and are united by one thing: confidently, voluntarily, and openly speaking out their HIV positive-statutes on their weekly Facebook-Live shows; brandishing their ARV pills online sometimes; and deploying e-comedy as a side job to urge followers to get tested and treated, and thus helping drive the message of zero-HIV stigma very effectively in Zimbabwe and her diaspora.

“This is incredibly helpful,” says Wayne Soko, an activist with the Zimbabwe HIV Survivors Network, a nonprofit that advocates for continue adherence to medication. “In the 90s we lost millions of Zimbabwe citizens when HIV antiretroviral drugs were not available. In the early 2000s we lost thousands of lives when there was mistrust of ARV pills and HIV was not believed to be a medical concern. Now that online comedians are openly disclosing their HIV positive status online on social media, this is incredibly important for efforts to make sure HIV is demystified, people get tested and adhere to treatment.”

Digital comedy driven by real-time social techs like Facebook Live or Tik Tok is surprisingly a fabulously effective tool to tackle stigma in places where official billboards/offline messaging by governments and HIV charities don’t change public perceptions fast enough, agrees Dr Basil Nyakudya, a public health physician in Harare the capital of Zimbabwe.

“As doctors in white coats we are feared. When we tell our patients that HIV is a treatable condition just like diabetes, we are mistrusted. But when comedians with thousands of followers on Facebook or WhatsApp proudly take their pills, fans get calm and agree that the HIV infection is not a death sentence. It’s about relatability and social media is a game changer.”

19 August, 2023