That was in 2003.
Beaten down by poverty for years, the recruit at a security service training school was very upbeat about a new employment.
But there was this small issue of testing her blood ahead of a compulsory blood donation from the recruits.
Small issue. You don’t have to learn to pass a blood test so what could be so hard?
It was not hard for Gifty Torkenoo-Degbe. It was life-changing.
“I felt my world had come to an end when I was told I had the virus after a sugar [diabetes] test,” she told Daniel Dadzie on the Super Morning Show on Joy FM, Monday.
That news came in when she was in the office of the Director of Study.
Mrs. Torkenoo-Degbe found the whole issue amusing and even laughed it off as it was impossible for her to have contracted the virus.
Laughter gave way to a serious confrontation with the new facts and so the single mother of one, went in for a second opinion.
“I went to the Police Hospital…and cried for hours when it still turned out positive,” she said as she was handed two letters.
One for her. One for the Director of Study.
“I was given two envelopes, one for myself and the other for the Director of Study which I was instructed not to open,” Mrs. Torkenoo-Degbe explained she was given clear instructions not to open the letter to the Director.
She was in no mood for clear instructions only a mood for cat-killing curiosity.
“It read, the Director should not do anything to me and let me continue with my training,” she recalled some little comfort in the devastating news.
For someone who had been told a life-changing decision, she still had the strength to go to the training like she had been asked to continue her training.
“I met the Director at the administration block and gave him the letter but he instructed me not to enter the classroom, after two hours of waiting, he asked me into his office and told me to pack my stuff and go home explaining his actions as an order from above,” she stated.
Gifty gets tired of the gift of life
“When I got home, I told my mum I am going to die, I prepared a concoction and readied myself to die without thought of my nine-year-old daughter,” Mrs. Torkenoo-Degbe stated.
She explained, she took the concoction and slept, woke up and slept again, expecting the medicine to take effect, when it did not, she was presented with the task of facing the world in her situation.
To many, this would have been a deal breaker and no concoction would have stood between them and death.
She explained after she left the training school many people kept calling her from school telling her they knew she was HIV positive, “the Director had told some of them.”
“I went to prayer camps and bought anointing oil for four years because I thought it was spiritual and did everything I was asked to do,” Mrs. Torkenoo-Degbe said.
She said, “I used to think taking a cube of sugar thinking will make my blood sweet so the virus will leave me.”
Facing your fears, living your life
After the four years, she had to get retested to see if the pastor’s interventions had worked. However, she had to come to accept her condition after the test came out positive.
“I had no formal education on the HIV/AIDS then so I thought I was going to die after the fifth year,” she revealed.
“The pain and the stigma that came with the news made me feel I had lost everything. My worst moment was when there was nothing to feed on and I had no money because no one would hire me,” Mrs. Torkenoo-Degbe revealed.
She revealed she suffered from blackouts but mostly lived normally and would do “any work to support my family” with the exception of prostitution or theft.
“I used to fetch firewood for a kenkey seller living in my neighbourhood and she would pay me with kenkey and fish, I was willing to sweep the streets of Ghana just to survive,” Mrs. Torkenoo-Degbe narrated.
She explained she had discriminated against herself, did not go out much and sat behind in church just to purposely avoid confrontations with some of her mates in training school.
“I did not want anybody to know me,” she added.
Mrs. Torkenoo-Degbe took a decision to make a turn and live a changed life after she joined the group for HIV infected persons and got more knowledge about the disease.
She joined the singing group at church and started to reveal her status – after she had an encounter with the Ghana AIDS Commission – to spread the awareness of the disease.
Many people are afraid to put out their hands and greet infected persons, but grace found her after all, after she revealed her status in church.
“The Pastor was afraid for me and advised me not to say anything in the church because of all the stigma the illness came with,” she said.
Regardless of the pastor’s advice, no stigma was going to stop her from drawing people’s attention to the illness and the need to get tested “I was above stigma I said to him.”
The day she chose to pick a microphone and tell the church her HIV status, a gentleman in the choir kept looking at her, and wanting her for more than just being friends.
There is no fear in love
Her status, Mrs. Torkenoo-Degbe said, stopped many gentlemen from being more than friends with her.
“Anytime I told someone who was interested in me [that] I was HIV positive, we became only friends,” she explained.
However, to some HIV is not a deal breaker when love is involved. Her husband was not disturbed by her illness.
“My husband is a very quiet and gentle person, down to earth, a man every woman will have as a husband, he is an introvert, when I make noise he sits and ignores me because he knows how I am,” she said.
Mrs. Torkenoo-Degbe stated, “we were in the choir together and anytime he told me he would like to take me to the altar, I laughed it off as a joke,”.
The man who tested negative called her to the chapel, a year after she had revealed her status in the church, and proposed to her.
“He proposed to me at the entrance of the church and even then, I laughed it off as a joke,” she added.
Mrs. Torkenoo-Degbe said when she and others came out as ambassadors, people could not believe they were healthy people but had HIV.
“It encouraged people to test for HIV more,” she added.
She advised the Ghana Aids Commission to intensify AIDS education because many people are ignorant about the virus unlike before.