International volunteering for 18-25 year olds

Meet Nathaniel, the volunteer living with HIV using his experience to help prevent AIDS in Malawi

Progressio ICS volunteer Nathaniel is using his experience as an HIV positive man on placement
Volunteer Nathaniel Antonio-Gorse was just 17 when he contracted HIV.
 

Now 20, Nathaniel is currently volunteering with Progressio ICS in Mzuzu, the capital of Malawi’s northern region, to help more young people learn about the dangers of unsafe sex.

The country’s HIV prevalence is one of the highest in the world, with one in every ten people living with the virus.1

In this blog, Nathaniel speaks about becoming HIV positive as a teenager, beginning treatment and having first-hand experience working in the field with young people to improve HIV and AIDS outcomes.

Nathaniel (centre) with fellow volunteers in Malawi

‘I didn’t care about myself’

“It was May 2014. I was 17,” said Nathaniel.

“I'd just dropped out of school a couple of months earlier in March, and I was suffering from depression. I didn't have a job and I didn't know what to do next.

“It was a weird time for me. I wasn't looking after myself, I didn't care about myself, and that’s how I ended up on Grindr. The day it all began, a guy messaged me on the app.

“He told me to jump on the train to Manchester to meet him. We drank wine, watched movies, and then it finally came to it – sex.

“I asked if he should be wearing a condom. ‘No, no, it’ll be fine’, he told me. I knew straight away I’d been taken advantage of.”

 Nathaniel and his volunteer team

‘Thought I was going to die’

Months passed and then one week, Nathaniel suffered from a bad virus. It left him bedbound, unable to move, and thinking he was going to die.

Although it wasn’t HIV – he couldn’t show symptoms so soon after contracting the virus – the illness made him want to find out for definite whether he’d caught anything from that one night.

Nathaniel found the courage to tell his mum and booked a blood test.

“At this point, I still knew barely anything about HIV, and I definitely wasn’t aware of the very real danger of contracting the virus if you don't know who you're sleeping with,” he added.

“It was terrifying. The first thing that came into my head was, ‘I’m going to die'.

“The next week I was booked to go in for the results of the blood test, but unexpectedly, the surgery called early. I knew it wasn't going to be good news.

“We were taken into a room and asked to take a seat. The doctor told me that I was HIV positive.

“Me and my mum broke down.”

Opening up

In May, a woman visited Nathaniel’s workplace from his local Rotary Club. She and her husband were doing some voluntary work in South Africa, and Nathaniel was inspired by their story.

It was only after applying and being accepted onto the ICS programme that Nathaniel had to tell the truth about his HIV status to colleagues – in a long email that described his reasons for wanting to volunteer on a sexual health project.

“That was the first time where I really opened up about my status and about who I really was,” he said.

ICS volunteers work across Africa on HIV and AIDS projects like Nathaniel's

HIV prevention in Malawi

Now in the last few weeks of his time on placement, working with a team of 18 young volunteers from the UK and Malawi, Nathaniel is proud of their accomplishments.

“It's an incredible opportunity being in Malawi, working on such an impactful project with a powerful partner organisation,” Nathaniel said.

He’s been working with Tovwirane, a small NGO supporting HIV prevention in northern Malawi.

“Working with Tovwirane has enabled us to go out to so many schools to carry out peer education sessions, helping young people learn more about STIs, HIV and AIDS, HTC (HIV testing and counselling), positive living, and voluntary medical male circumcision.”

ICS allowed Nathaniel to bring his first-hand experience to the field

Preventing others making the same mistake

“It's been great working on a project that relates so much to my experience as an HIV positive man,” he said.

Having mentioned his HIV status in conversation with fellow volunteers from the beginning, it was easy for Nathaniel to be open when working with local young people.

“If we're doing a session on positive living in school, talking about how you can live a healthy life while being HIV positive, I‘m living proof’” he said.

“It’s really special to be able to talk to people about HIV, to make sure that they don't make the same mistake I did. I'm able to talk about it in a personal way. To educate people and be an advocate for HIV prevention.”

The team are working hard to reduce Mzuzu's 14% HIV prevalance rate

To find out more about the work Progressio and their partner organisations are doing in tackling HIV and AIDS, click here to read Kelly's day-in-the-life account of her time on placement.

 

1. Information source: UN AIDS (PDF)

About the Author

Jack Howson