Nothing is Unspeakable

Jamillah Katombo

In April 2013, Jamillah Rhoda Katombo, an outspoken and fearless grassroots activist sat down to share her story with the women of Basali Amoho, a collective of Zambian community-based activists supported by JASS Southern Africa. Jamillah worked tirelessly to break the silence around HIV and AIDS within her conservative Muslim community, saving scores of women’s lives in a context where non-disclosure of one’s HIV status means being unable to access critical treatment and healthcare. A mere two months later, Jamillah passed away before the publication of her story in Basali Amoho’s Amplifying Women’s Voices: Zambian Women Speak, a compilation of activist stories of survival, resistance and solidarity.*

A founding member of Basali Amoho – "Women Together", Jamillah overcame her fear and stood with other women against silence and stigma to transform her community.

In her own words:

“I am a feminist activist and a Zambian Muslim woman who experienced discrimination because of my positive status. Years ago, I made a challenge to myself and refused to feel ashamed. Instead, I spoke about my status openly with people and I used my power within to confront the stigma and discrimination I faced. Through my power within and with the support of friends and family, I overcame the situation and today I call myself an activist. I broke the silence on HIV/AIDS within my community by choosing to go for voluntary testing and counselling and now I work with other women to eliminate stigma and discrimination.

In 2001, I was involved in an accident and hit by a vehicle. I spent eight months in the University Teaching Hospital and came out using crutches to walk. I still continued going for check-ups and during a follow-up procedure, the health personnel discovered I was HIV positive. At first, they only shared this information with my brother. He and my father felt that I was too sick to know the truth and were concerned that I would be stigmatised because of my status. But the doctors insisted that I had a right to know. When they told me, I decided to go for voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) and I found that it was true. When I went back to work, I did my best to act like nothing had happened. I found it difficult to share my story at first. But I wanted to help other people. I participated in a sensitisation meeting on HIV and AIDS where one man shared a heart-breaking story of his experience with living positively. His testimony was met with discriminatory comments from the sensitisation group. Some people mocked and insulted him. When I saw this, I decided to share my story with one of the programme’s organisers. She was kind to me and connected me to many activities in my community as well as an organisation called the Zambia Network of Religious Leaders living with HIV or affected by HIV (ZANERELA+). One day, at a ZANERELA+ workshop, pastors, bishops and community leaders all stood up to share how HIV had affected their lives. I was so moved by the courageous people in the room that I stood up to share my own story. It was not easy and I was still afraid of people judging me. It was right then that I became an activist.

I started to work in my community to help raise awareness and support home-based care groups. Many people would say negative things about us advising them to go for VCT. This only motivated me to come out in the open and disclose my status no matter the discrimination I might face. At the clinics in my town, I had never seen any Muslims standing in a queue to collect HIV drugs or information – and it made me angry because so many needed it! One year, during a World AIDS Day event, I decided to come out in the open so that people in the Muslim community would know the truth about my life. I was the first Muslim woman to come out as HIV positive. People would ask me why I had disclosed my status so openly and I told them that I had to come out because so many Muslim women were dying from the pandemic, so many Muslim women were not getting medical care because they were afraid of being seen and judged for their status. I wanted things to change and I wanted Muslim women to live healthy, positive lives.

[In our] Islamic tradition, condoms are considered taboo and… allows a man to marry up to four women. These cultural and religious practices endanger many Muslim women. My friends and I have used radio programmes to raise awareness on the pandemic and safeguard the lives of women in the mosques. Many people have people have died due to the fear of stigma and discrimination. But together, we are fighting the battle of the condoms in our homes as Muslim women because we are tired of people dying like this when there is a solution.

Being a part of Basali Amoho has helped me to discover the power within me and it has helped me as a woman. I am a feminist who knows my rights as a Muslim woman and as a woman who can speak out on issues of oppression, stigma and discrimination…. I am a role model in my community.”

Through the Lusaka Muslim Women’s Organisation, Jamillah supported programs for orphans, vulnerable children and against gender-based violence. Her radical organising alongside her community, with sheikhs and women activists alike, ensured that voluntary counselling and testing services were made available in six mosques across Lusaka and opened the door to challenge harmful traditions and customs.

*We are thankful to Jamillah for sharing her powerful story as a way to inspire other women to take action in their lives and communities as she did so courageously throughout her life as an activist.