WFP Staffer Breaks The Silence On HIV/AIDS

In 2000, long-time WFP Malawi office staffer Josiah Tepani found out he was HIV-positive. Instead of being the death sentence he feared, the virus transformed Tepani into a passionate champion -- a champion for ending fear and stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS in his country and throughout the UN system. This year, 52-year-old Tepani is marking World AIDS Day by sharing his story.

LILONGWE -- When the doctor told me, I thought: "I’m going to die." I was so scared. I couldn’t believe it. HIV-positive.

At the time, HIV/AIDS was so bad in Malawi. People were dying unnecessarily because they couldn’t access information and treatment. That was in 2000. Today, many do. And here I am in 2013, still working for WFP. Living healthily with HIV.

But getting here hasn’t been easy.

I had been sick for months, staying home from work. My weight dropped from 65 to 38 kilos. I checked into hospital for treatment.At first, I thought it was malaria. Then the doctor ordered tests. The results weren’t good.  My wife cried at the news.

Keeping the faith

The doctor urged me not to lose hope. But I lost hope. I’ve lost so many friends to AIDS.

Then came another challenge. The doctor advised anti-retroviral (ARV) treatment, which is a life-saving, lifetime treatment for people living with HIV. But the drugs were so expensive. My relatives pooled their money. It was only enough for one-month’s supply.

Josiah Tepani in front of WFP bannerThat’s when WFP stepped in. I disclosed my status to the head of my office. He helped me buy the medication. Later, after he left, WFP Malawi fundraised to help HIV-positive national staff access ARVs. Now, WFP covers my treatment.

At the beginning, I was so afraid to return to work. Afraid of my colleagues’ reaction, because I was very thin. Not all of them were happy to see me. Some of them wouldn’t share a cup of tea – even though I hadn’t told them I had HIV. I talked to my boss, and he encouraged me to be strong.  

Speaking out

In 2005, I began to reveal my status to some of my colleagues and to management. Management gave me wonderful encouragement. I began speaking about my experience at staff meetings. I wanted to offer peer counselling to other HIV-positive staff. To give them comfort and tips about how to live.

In 2007, some colleagues and I launched the Malawi chapter of UN Plus, a UN-wide advocacy group of staff living with HIV. Today, our chapter has 18 members, including 12 from WFP. Through UN Plus, we want to offer encouragement and support to HIV-positive staff. We want zero discrimination at work. We want to break the silence. I would especially love it if more high-ranking people support UNPlus. It can boost both our advocacy and support activities – and encourage others to join our group.  

My colleagues and their families ask me for advice about the epidemic. I’m not a medical doctor, but I’ve been living with HIV for almost 13 years.

Last year, I went to a WFP distribution centre for people living with HIV in hospital. I told them not to lose hope. I told them to listen to the doctors and to take the WFP food supplements. I told them to look at me. I’m living a normal life. Being HIV-positive is not the end of the world.

WFP uses food assistance to protect the lives and livelihoods of people living with HIV. For more information, checkout these links::

(Photo above shows Josiah, on left, receiving an award for long service with the UN in Malawi. Copyright: WFP/ Dannie Phiri)