It was good to see Rajiv Kafle again — even if only in this photograph, where he is the grown up surrounded by children. This was taken by my friend Shahidul Alam, whose latest photo exhibition, Portraits of Commitment, I’ve just seen.
I immediately recognised Rajiv because he was a key character in a documentary film we at TVE Asia Pacific commissioned five years ago, in 2002. Love for a Longer Life, directed by Nepali film-maker Dhurba Basnet, was part of a package of Truth Talking films that probed how Asia Pacific societies were coping with rapid change or crises.
At that time, there were 50,000 Nepalis living with HIV. But Rajiv was the very first among them to publicly announce that he had HIV — it created ripples in the conservative Nepali society.
He is a former injecting drug user who contracted HIV through unsafe needles.
“I injected drugs for two years. I got infected with HIV when I used a contaminated syringe belonging to one of my friends. He was HIV positive and I used his syringe without sterilising it properly,” Rajiv described his case history on our film.
After coming to terms with his own HIV status, Rajiv turned activist. For the past few years, he has been a crusader to educate Nepalese youth to prevent them from contracting HIV through ignorance. He gives talks at schools and colleges about his experiences of living with HIV.
It has not been easy: his revelation shook the conservative Nepali society, where most people are still reluctant to talk about HIV, associating it directly with illicit sex.
“Stigma, discrimination — then death.” That’s the bleak future that many HIV positive people in Nepal face according to Rajiv. “There is a great deal of stigma and discrimination against HIV/AIDS sufferers. Because there is so much negative publicity, an HIV-positive person finds it difficult to reveal his condition. He will have heard only about stigma, discrimination and death.”
“If we create a favourable environment, people will definitely come out and let others know,” he says, adding: “It took me a couple of years before I was able to publicly announce that I was HIV positive.”
Change was happening even five years ago when the camera crew from Nepal Forum of Environmental Journalists (NEFEJ) followed him across Kathmandul Valley as he gave talks at schools and other public places.
“Now I see a change. Lots of young people understand the problem and are getting involved. The media and public are now more interested in this subject and they want to interact with people who have been through this.”
It wasn’t easy to produce Love for a Longer Life. As Dhurba Basnet (photo, above) reported at the time: “The major problem we faced during shooting, however, was that it was very difficult to get people living with HIV to talk naturally on camera. We had to first win their trust. This we achieved by behaving with them as normally as possible.”
After some shooting had been completed, Rajiv Kafle fell ill. “Since he was a major character in the film we had to wait a whole month while he recovered.”