When we met Jesula in May 2010, she was broken. She was 22, HIV positive, with a toddler and another baby on the way. She’d found out about her pregnancy shortly after the earthquake and couldn’t see much point in living, because, after all, what kind of life could she expect to have with so many strikes against her?
The day we met Jesula, we’d just come from interviewing a psychologist who counsels people living with HIV. After Jesula broke down in tears during our interview, I gave her the psychologist’s name and number and told her to call.
She did, and when we saw Jesula again, a few months later, she was radiant. We accompanied her to the clinic for her check up, and spent time with her and her son in her single-room home. And we met her boyfriend Jean, the father of her children and the man she had been with since she was 15.
It was Jean who had infected Jesula, and as he told the story of the day he found out she was HIV positive, I was actually moved. He said that he had been so distraught that he had infected her—he was the only man she had ever been with, and realized that if she was infected, he was too—that he had tried to kill himself. He threw himself in front of a passing car, and basically went into hysterics until a friend calmed him down. He vowed, during our interview, that he would do anything to support her and their children. He seemed supportive, committed and faithful.
In January, Jesula again seemed buoyant. Her little girl, then 4 months old, was equally joyous, smiling and laughing at everything I did. I spent most of my time playing with the baby, and chatting with Jesula, asking her how life had been in the months since we’d seen her last. When I asked about Jean, Jesula’s mood changed. She said he had left, or rather, she had told him to leave. Two weeks before, a woman had started calling Jesula, insulting her, and telling her that she was having a relationship with Jean. The woman called late at night, when Jean was not home, and told Jesula that Jean was with her.
Jesula confronted Jean, and when he confessed--but insinuated that Jesula should stop hassling him--Jesula told him to pack his things and leave. This was not the first time Jean had cheated on Jesula and she was fed up.
I felt two things as Jesula told this story. The first was disgust, because I was pretty sure that Jean was not using protection with all these women, and I couldn’t understand his promiscuity, given that he is HIV positive. The second thing was pride. Because as I asked Jesula how she was going to take care of these two small children all on her own, she told me she, confidently, that she would manage. I’d found her a part time job a few months before, and she had saved her money, bought rice, beans and oil wholesale, and had started a business. She was so poised, so different from the meek young woman I’d first met. I was impressed that she’d had enough pride in herself to realize that she didn’t have to put up with Jean’s infidelity.
When I told her this, and asked her how she had changed, she replied, “It was you. You told me to see the psychologist, and I have been seeing her every week, and she has helped me a lot.”
In seeing Jesula on this trip, I saw that traces of that sad young woman had returned. Jesula had taken Jean back, briefly, but had then told him to leave again when his other woman continued to hassle her. And then, a few weeks ago, Jesula’s little sister died. Jesula was so distraught that she couldn’t work. She’d used all the money from her business to pay for food, and now had nothing. Her baby had a cold and did not smile once. She appeared to be the same size and weight she had been in January.
Andre Lambertson, the photographer throughout this project, took a picture of Jesula the evening we visited. She is holding her baby and looking wistfully out the door of her house. It is a poignant picture, one that we unfortunately cannot publish because Jesula wants to keep her identity hidden.
I asked Jesula what she was thinking in that picture. She said she was troubled primarily because in losing Jean, she had lost her confidante. Aside from her doctors, and us, Jean is the only person in the world who knows that Jesula is HIV positive, the only person she can talk to about her struggles with this illness.
This is what she told me:
“I am not happy because the man left, and I am the only one who is providing food and assisting the kids. I would like him to come back. When he was in the house, he used to remind me to take my medicine and sincerely since he has left, I have not taken my medicine. I cannot swallow them. When I am trying to swallow, it cannot go down, even though I take a glass full of water. The water goes down, but the medicine stays in my throat.
“It was like this when Jean was there, but he used to encourage me to take it. I am supposed to take medicine twice a day. I haven’t taken it in three months. If I don’t take my medicine, my CD4 might decrease until I might die. That thought motivates me, but I honestly cannot swallow, I cannot eat. I think it is sadness.
“Jean is the only person who knows everything about me. If I am sick, he is the only one who knows what to do and how to do it, if I fall and have to go to hospital, he is the only one who knows what to do. It hurts me, and I am angry he is with another woman, because I have been with him in a relationship since I was 15. If he doesn’t come back, I will not tell him anything and I will not force him to come back. It is not that I cannot find someone better, but I am already infected and I don’t see myself going to infect someone else. If he does not come back, I will never have anyone else in my life.”