I am 28. White. A Female. And a former Peace Corps Volunteer. I am HIV Positive. This is my story of how a few months, a few people, and a few events in Zambia changed me and my life forever. This is the story of how I contracted HIV and brought my Peace Corps Journey to a crashing halt... and how I am working now to pick up and put back together the pieces of my life as a newly diagnosed person living with HIV. This was not the journey I had originally planned... my path has traumatically and dramatically changed... but it is the one I am on now. There is no going back. There is only forward. I welcome you to follow along with me as I attempt to explore this new life ahead of me, whether you are someone from the Peace Corps community, or someone living with HIV. I welcome your comments, questions, suggestions, and opinions. Let us go forward together. To start from the beginning, click here He Gave Me More Than A Bracelet.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Goodbyes I Never Got A Chance To Give…

I apologize for my slowness and almost absence on this blog for the past week. It was partially due to some other things going on in my life, and partially due to the fact that I sort of lost my place in my story (due to responses to readers, emotional breakdowns, and guest entries), and wasn’t quite sure where to pick up and keep going. So, now that I have some free time, I want to share a little more with you about how I left Africa, and about some of the goodbyes that I never got the chance to give…

When I fell sick, school was on Holiday. The pupils (my pride and joy) were at home, and the teachers (my best friends) were traveling. I lived with a polygamist family and had the privilege of having a father, three mothers, 20+ siblings, and a whole village of extended family.
When I fell sick, I shut myself inside my hut for 2-3 days. I didn’t even go to get water. I think I mostly ate bread and peanut butter, and the snack foods I had just recently received in a care package from college friends. I laid in bed or on the floor all day and all night.

My family kept coming and knocking on the door, “Madame! Basisi!”
In my broken Tonga, I just called back, “Ndaciswa (I’m sick/paining)”.
“Mwaciswa?!?! Mwaciswa nzi? (What is paining you?)”
Uhhhh… “Ndijisi Malaria? (I have Malaria?)”
“Ah. Jabija (Too bad.)”

By the third morning when the PC cruiser came to pick me up, I could barely lift myself off the floor and climb into the vehicle. I didn’t even bother to say goodbye to the family. I didn’t take another look at my hut or my yard or any of it. I had a backpack in my hand with a pair of jeans, a couple of citenges, and some underwear. I thought that I was just going into the capital for a few days to get treated for Malaria. I had no idea at that point that I was driving away from my hut and family for good.

I never got to go back… I never got to say goodbye…

I’m sure that they were confused. One day the village Mukuwa (white girl) was there, and then suddenly she was gone forever. I later wrote my family/school/village a goodbye letter, though I do not know for sure whether they ever received it. Here is some of what it said…
September 16, 2011
Dear Nteme School, Teachers, Pupils, Friends, Family, and Community,
It is very difficult for me to write this letter to you all. Due to certain serious medical issues, it has been decided that I will not be able to return and continue as your Peace Corps Volunteer. I will actually be “medically separated” from the Peace Corps and will be returning to America very soon. Unfortunately, I will not even be able to come and say goodbye. These events have come about so suddenly and unexpectedly, and I am still a bit in shock about it all. I am so devastated that I was only able to spend 3 months with you. We were just starting to develop some good strong friendships and relationships. I had so many dreams and ideas and hopes for the school and area. I was so excited to get started on teaching and other projects.
    I want to thank you for all of the support and kindness you showed me during my time in Nteme. Thank you for building me such a beautiful house and placing me with such a loving and caring family. Thank you for teaching me to make fire and carry water on my head. Thank you for being patient with me and my sometimes culturally strange or inappropriate behaviors. Thank you for being friendly and inviting me over for meals or just to visit. Thank you for teaching me about Zambian schools and culture. Thank you for talking and laughing and joking with me. Thank you for loving me and welcoming me as one of your own. Even though my time with you was so short, I will remember it and all of you forever.
    I apologize that it has to end like this. I know that many of you will be just as sad and disappointed as I am. I’m sorry for all of the unfulfilled promises and projects I am leaving you with. I hope that you are not angry with me and know that if there was anything I could do to change the situation, I would in an instant. I hope that we can keep in touch, and I wish the school and the whole community the best! I love you and will miss you all!

Looking back, I definitely have some regrets. I wish I would have spent more time with them. I wish I would have cooked and ate with them more. I wish I had been more patient and more outgoing. I wish I had taken more pictures. I wish I would have at least hugged them before getting into the cruiser that day.

I also left the entire PC community without any real goodbyes. I was sick and miserable in the bunkhouse for a few days, then next thing I knew I was in the hospital hooked up to IVs. After that, it was straight onto a plane to South Africa. I STILL had no idea that I was leaving Zambia for good.

I never got to go back… I never got to say goodbye…

After my diagnosis, I also wrote my cohort of volunteers a goodbye letter. Here is a bit of what it said…
September 16, 2011
Dear RED 2011’s,
    As some of you may have heard, I was recently med-evacuated to
South Africa. Unfortunately, I have some more very bad news to share with you. It turns out that I have contracted HIV and I will be medically separated and returning home to America very soon. I have chosen to be honest and share this information with you as my intake group, because you are my friends and family, and maybe something in my story can help to protect you from making the same mistakes I did. I would prefer not to have all of PC Zambia gossiping about me, so I’m hoping as much as possible that you will keep this only within our group. So, here is my story:
    I always considered myself a pretty safe person. Most of you know me as the kind of person that likes to follow the rules, pretty much when it comes to anything and everything. And although I can be a bit “boy crazy” at times, I am actually just a big tease and am actually quite sexually conservative. I only ever had sex with 2 people in the states, and those were both long term serious committed relationships. I never had casual sex before. Well, as we all know- our situations and environments and behaviors change in
Zambia. So, I don’t know whether it was the boredom, loneliness, excitement, or just a momentary lapse in judgment- but something caused me to let my guard down and have casual sex in Zambia.
    It happened in
Lusaka during IST, with a Zambian that I had known for 5 days. It was on the 5th night that we had sex. I felt like I knew him and he was a nice guy. He said he had been tested in March and was negative. We had oral sex. Then we had sexual intercourse 3 times, using a condom each time. I thought we did everything right. I thought we were safe. It turns out we were not safe enough. Somehow, either during oral sex or foreplay or something, the virus was still passed on.
    Just over 2 weeks (17 days exactly) later, I fell violently ill with malaria like symptoms. I suffered for a few days at home, before they picked me up and brought me to
Lusaka, where my fever and symptoms continued, with no clear cause or solution. When I felt like I was going to die, they admitted me to the hospital in Lusaka. The blood tests were confusing the heck out of them- they could tell something was seriously wrong, but they didn’t know what. They did 2 HIV tests, which both came out negative. As my condition failed to improve, they made the decision to fly me to South Africa. The SA hospital embarked on a series of tests, including re-doing the HIV test. This time it came back positive. They re-did it the next day- positive again. They gave me some hope during this time because sometimes a person can have a different virus going on that interferes with the results and causes a false positive. But, the third test was the last and final “confirmatory” test- and it came back positive.
    It’s kind of hard to describe my reaction- far less dramatic than you might imagine. I’ve been surprisingly calm. I don’t know if it’s because of the gradual nature of how I found out the results, or if I’m just in shock and its all going to hit me later. Right now, I’m just taking it one step at a time. I’ve been in the hospital for 5 days as my condition stabilizes and my blood results improve. Now, I’ve just been discharged to the Med-Evac Guest House in SA for a few days while logistics get figured out. Then I will fly to D.C. where I will finish up the allowable 45 days of “Medevac”, receiving the best treatment, care, and counseling from PC Headquarters. Finally, from there I will return to
Florida and try to figure out what to do with my life next.
    I can’t believe this all happened so quickly, and that my experience here has come to such an abrupt stop. I never thought a week ago that it would be my last time ever in my hut and village. I won’t get to say goodbye to my family, friends, pupils, or any of you. I didn’t really even get to say goodbye to
Zambia. I didn’t know at that point that I was leaving for good. I didn’t know at that point that I had irreparably screwed up my life.
    I don’t really feel angry right now, more just stupid and embarrassed. I can’t believe I only made it 7 months here before something like this happened. I feel like I’ve let so many people down- my village, Peace Corps, friends, family… I had such high dreams and plans for my time here- and now it’s all gone- I accomplished nothing. I’m jealous of all of you that get to stay and keep working towards your goals. Please stay safe and strong and accomplish much where I no longer can! Please feel free to e-mail me or send me PRIVATE Facebook messages. PLEASE DO NOT write anything concerning my illness or going back to the
USA on my Facebook Wall.
    Thank you! I love you all and will miss you bunches! I’ll be supporting you all wholeheartedly from stateside! Do big things!

It has been a few months now, and naturally time has healed some of the pain of saying goodbye, or rather of not saying it. However, I don’t know if I will ever be able to get over the shock of the abruptness of it all, or ever really have full closure.

It has been just over 4 months since the day that I walked out of my hut, unknowingly, for the last time. I have yet to receive my computer, camera, or any other personal belongings from Zambia. I hope that PC will actually ship them one day. I hope that if/when they arrive, there will be a picture, a video, a citenge, or something that will help me to remember it all better. And maybe, just maybe, it will help to bring some closure to me…


  1. I was a PCV in Congo 95-96. I ET'd due to numerous reasons. The two biggest reasons I left were having a knife held to my throat by a local and realizing that no one was going to step in because he was a relative of Chief of the Village (I managed escape that one physically unharmed) and being so isolated with no way to communicate that when I did get Malaria- There was no way to get out of my village or contact anyone for help for 4 days (nearest other PCV was 4-5 hrs away). It was pure chance that a logging truck company bigwig was in the area scouting for new areas to log and he took me back to another PCV's house (4 hr drive away). It was there that I managed to get a flight to the capitol for treatment. When it was time to go back to post is was just as hard logistically to get there as it was to leave. Several other things happened when I got back. I decided I wasn't sure how much more I could take and so I ET'd. I wish more than anything that I had had the chance to tell my friends in Congo why I left. After returning home- I got a few letters from friends (other PCV’s and embassy folks I had met). They told me that at the IST, there was no mention why I wasn’t there- just that I had left. I had no way to say goodbye to them. There didn’t seem to be any interest on the part of PC Congo to let volunteers share with other PCV’s what we were going through or to seek support. When I finally got home, I felt a lot of what you mentioned- reverse culture shock, shame (guess I wasn’t “strong enough” to be a PCV…) embarrassment (guess that was a big waste of time and money to get over there if I only stayed for a year) and loneliness. Apparently my medical records had been lost and it took several months to get PC to admit they didn’t know what happened to the COS medical exam. (They did find most of it but my HIV test was missing). I had to go get re-tested. In 1996- there was a lot more stigma around requesting a HIV test. Not once did PC apologize or offer assistance to help me navigate the post country medical maze. Thankfully I was negative but I was alone and scared while waiting for the results. I guess the point to all of this is after reading your story about the support you have gotten from PC, the openness of PC to allow you to share your story with other volunteers (your letter) and the way you have been tended to, makes me have hope that PC has changed. Thank you for being willing to tell your story- it could be any PCV in your shoes, but I bet not all of them are as strong as you are to share.

  2. Thank you for your continued honesty and openness, Jess. It is an inspiration to all who read your blog. My heart is heavy with yours, and it's true that time heals pain. Know that I can relate to what you write about not being able to say goodbye. Sometimes it seems like a blessing--to not have to explain yourself 100 times over--and other times it's a huge burden that you'll never be able to communicate to some people what they meant to you. Keep on keepin' on, friend!

  3. Thank you for sharing your story. Your candor is inspirational and as a RPCV I think it is essential to share both the positive and difficulties of service. I hope that your story will both educate and resonate with current and returned PCVs. Again, thank you, I will continue to follow your story and support you from afar.

  4. I just found your blog through other PCV friends and sat down and read the whole thing. I was very moved by your story, because one of my closest friends in PC went through a similar situation, discovering they were positive after thinking they had been doing everything right, and it was such a devastating shock and wake-up call. Most PCVs I know have found themselves in situations, whether they be transport, relationship, or other, in which afterwords they thank god or their lucky stars that they made it through ok, because that's all it was, good fortune to escape cold hard reality one more time. I know personally how hard it is to always do everything right, and how easy it is to make decisions you might not make under other circumstances because of stress, loneliness, etc. And I know I have been very lucky, but that's all it is, dumb luck.

    I don't even know you, but I feel so proud of what you're doing by sharing your life like this, and I hope that both your message and your strength and positive attitude spread to others around the world. You are exhibiting what I consider ideals (although unfortunately not always the reality) of Peace Corps: Compassion, Intelligence, and Bravery. I wish you all the best and will keep you in my thoughts.

    ~a fellow RPCV~

  5. Jessica, thank you so much for sharing your story. I'm currently serving as Health Education PCV in Tanzania and your blog was shared by our staff in a email last week. Everyone is talking about it, how real and honest it is. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate you opening up and educating all of us who have and will experience similar situation.

    keep writing and know how much of an impact your story is having on all of us. thanks again.

  6. Jessica, Your courage and candor are beyond admirable. A few years ago, as a PCV in West Africa, I had a very similar experience to you with the Zambian guy – similar in terms of being emotionally vulnerable, similar in terms of being responsible, getting him tested, “low risk” activities, a first casual encounter (and only one previous relationship in the US), but the condom broke and I then discovered he had lied about getting tested. I freaked out but some combination of denial, shame, and self-punishment prevented me from going to the PCMO to get the post-exposure treatment. I worried every day for a good six months about my chances of being positive. I tested negative again and again, every three months for a year, and am so lucky that one uncharacteristic mistake didn’t leave any physical trace. That’s all it was – luck. Your story resonates with me and I’m sure with hundreds and hundreds of other PCVs and RPCVs. You aren’t alone at all. Having spent many sleepless nights contemplating being in your position, I know I couldn’t do what you are doing. Your honesty and openness takes a special kind of strength. I am sure that this blog and your story will raise awareness, inform and protect people, and make a very big difference. My very best wishes. Good job!

  7. Jessica. I want to tell you that although I do not know you, I support you 100% and want to thank you for being so courageous as to share your story. I will keep you in my thoughts and prayers. I recently completed my PC service in Paraguay, and while there also had a relationship with a Paraguayan. I agree with you - as human beings we do look for comfort and intimate contact with others, and this does not change just because you enter the Peace Corps or live in a different country. People are people. Thank you for being so open and brave. I also went through HIV/AIDS training but had no real concept that the virus could be so easily passed through oral sex or mutual masturbation. Now I am more educated, thanks to you.

    My best regards to you and your family, and please know that you have the support from so many people around the country and the world. We love you, and we are with you.

    1. You knew that adultery was a sin before you got into a relationship with that Paraguayan man. And why would God accept the prayers of an adulterer?

    2. If God were to refuse the prayers of adulterers, and all other sinners, who would he have to listen to?

    3. Jason...let me educate you by explaining in order to commit adultery you must first be married. I think your ignorant mind is trying to refer to premarital sex. Lucky for you, God is the ONLY one who can judge us. Lucky for me, I believe in karma and can sleep easy knowing you will receive everything you deserve for such an unnecessary and untruthful comment!

  8. Jessica,

    Thank you so much for your willingness to share your story with the world wide web. Your courage and resilience are truly admirable. I'm sure that through this reality check you have provided us all, you will assist many others from being infected.

    As an RPCV from Tanzania i can relate to many of the things you shared, which made me wonder...your story, although inspiring due to its undesirable outcome, is very common. PCVs go through a very transforming process that sometimes causes them to act in ways that are not typical. Sex is a part of nature, and even when equipped with all the education in the world, sometimes we fail to use the better judgment. I sometimes thought that my brain must have gone through a temporary state of insanity during my service. As some other commentators said, many of us had some form of unprotected sexual activity at some point in our lives. Do you have any thoughts of what sort of support PCVs need to be able to make more well-informed decisions during service? How can we make sure contracting HIV during service is not just a matter of 'luck'?

    You've already managed to turn an unwanted outcome into something positive, which is pretty amazing.

    I'm looking forward to reading more.


  9. Jessica, my heart breaks for you. I have been out of PC for 30 years, and did last the 2 years. But still 30 years later, I still feel "it wasn't enough". I regret a lot of the things, like you, I didn't do. But still I am so grateful for the opportunity and so grateful I was able to last the 2 years. I will keep you in my prayers including praying that you can reenter PC, if not Zambia, another country. Take care and thanks again for your strength and for your sharing.

  10. I was a PCVL in Zambia & had the unfortunate task of collecting and packing the items for a couple PCVs who were med-sep'ed. I'm sure your PCVL did everything they could to inform your village that it wasn't the village's fault you left and to give them your letter. I was sad to pack up those PCV's belongings and see them gone, but I was grateful that at least the village could hear the PCV's message passed on through me. Also, it takes a long time to get the go-ahead for packing up and shipping it, and all the red tape, but hopefully you'll get your stuff soon.

    I'm so sad that you didn't get to finish your time in Zambia (it is such a dear place in my heart), but I can see you're doing really great work now through the blog. And hopefully once you're stabilized, you can go back to PC if you want to.

    1. Hey Jess! It's B. I must say that I'm very happy to be reading your blog right now. Your entries will educate, inspire, and give hope to so many people. Anyways, when Peace Corps says they will "ship" your belongings, it really means "ship, on a super slow boat, that takes months." We tried our hardest to include your Zambia memorabilia, and Heather added a few chitenges for you. We also tried our hardest to take photos for you. School wasn't in session when we went but we snapped some photos of the school and head teachers. We delivered the letters but if there's anything you want sent to your community, they will be getting a replacement volunteer in 3 months. Keep writing, stay well, and know that we miss you.

  11. Hi Jessica,

    I'm a current health PCV in Tanzania and I think you are so incredibly brave, strong and wonderful for doing this. As mentioned previously our staff shared your blog with us and I've heard nothing but positive comments out of the TZ PCV community. I also have sent it out to my HIV/AIDS peer educators back in the States and your blog really struck a chord as they were discussing protection in terms of oral sex when educating college students.

    I'm sure it may not seem like it all of the time and words can only go so far, but no you ARE making a HUGE difference. What is so incredible about what you are doing now is that it has no 27 month time limit. You are doing something proactive, positive, and (in many ways) has a greater capacity to effect change on a wider-scale.

    I look forward to reading more of your honest, thorough, and valid writings in the future.


  12. Thank you for sharing! You may be on a different course than you originally intended, but it is clear that you are going to use your experience to create positive change in the world.

  13. Thank you for sharing your story. As others have said, even if you are unable to accomplish your original goals, through your experience and your writing you will be making a difference in many other's lives. Keep up the writing and activism. Remember that you are never alone. Life is strange, we all have our baggage, our experiences good and bad, and we can all learn from them. Sharing those experiences can some times be the best ways that we can help others and offer support. Whether it is disease, divorce, loss, or anything else, we are not alone. We can all move forward together.