EVER since her husband died, Hosanna Bankhead suspected she may have HIV.

She didn’t know for sure what had killed him. It wasn’t spoken about in Zimbabwe, where Aids was euphemistically described as ‘long illness’, if it was mentioned at all. “I knew there was something very wrong. But medically, I didn’t find out until I came to the UK”, she says.

Mrs Bankhead, a medical trainer, was diagnosed 13 years ago and the same stigma and shame led her to live a double life. “I had seen people dropping dead from this, it was scary. Where I came from, if you were diagnosed, six months later you were sick, and two years later you would be dead,” she says.

Now she lives openly with HIV and works supporting other Africans affected by the illness. The charity she helped found - Hwupenya Health has just been awarded £131,000 by the Big Lottery Fund to support its work.

Her own openness came about gradually, she says. “ Speaking out was good for my mental health - I was living two lives and started forgetting who I’d told,” she says. “Now, some people don’t want to be associated with me. Others will talk to me in private but pretend they don’t know me in public.”

The charity was set up in response to this overwhelming stigma which meant many Africans in Scotland were not coming forward for diagnosis or treatment. The charity currently works with more than 100 people from its Glasgow base. The Lottery cash award is intended to help it work with at least 300.

The need is there because traditional NHS services are not always reaching Africans, due to ingrained cultural prejudices and suspicion, Mrs Bankhead says. “Culturally, the way Africans relate to health is totally different to the way people in Scotland do,” she explains.

Barriers to seeking help include fear of the disease and a fatalism about the prospects for treatment, an expectation that doctors will be expensive and drugs unaffordable, as well as language problems.

“If we can get more people to engage with services, fewer will die, or be diagnosed late. People don’t ask for testing because they think ‘ I can’t have it I’m a good person’. But it happens to good people.”

Hwupenya helps reach out to ensure people are tested, and support them when they are. It works particularly to help young women who can be especially vulnerable to the disease due to the politics of marriage and gender in some African countries. It also works with NHS staff to improve their understanding. The Big Lottery is helping pay for expansion, including a full time project coordinator and an outreach worker.

Mrs Bankhead’s own HIV is well managed now with medication. But there is always more to do - there are plans for welfare advice for those attending the charity, and a food bank.

Maureen McGinn, Big Lottery Fund Scotland Chair, said: “Hwupenyu Health and Wellbeing Project are one of around 2000 diverse and inspiring projects in Scotland we have funded in the last year, and we are proud to support this valuable work.”