World AIDS day is coming up, and for us that always means a time to pause and reflect, to think about our community and those around us who are less fortunate.
As many of you will know, South Africa has one of the highest levels of HIV infection in the world. In particular, the small, rural, Umkhanyakude district and surrounds, where we are based is possibly the highest infected populations in the country. Women of reproductive age have an infection level of between 70 and 75%. When you think about this in real terms, 3 out of every 4 women aged between 16 and 26 are HIV positive. Reasons for the phenomenally high infection rate are not clear, but high levels of labour migration, low income levels, low education attendance and high desired levels of young pregnancy (resulting in a high birth rate) all have an influence on the overall infection levels.
I could fill you in on the stats and perceived reasons behind the infection levels for hours, but it is far better just to describe the reality of the situation to you as told by those who know. This is a description of the real life, daily reality faced by a lady called Zihle (name changed to protect identity) who is typical of around 75% of the women from the poorest, most neglected community we work with and alongside.
I am 30 years old. When I was 24 I was diagnosed HIV+. That was in 2006. I am not a South African, I am originally from Mozambique, that means that I have never been able to apply for an ID book. This means that I sometimes have a problem getting my ARV drugs from the local clinics. If this is the case, I have to travel very far to another clinic to see if they will help me. Luckily, the usual clinic gave me a patient card, which tells other doctors what pill combination I am on. If this is changed, it makes me very, very sick for a long time.. About 6 months.
I live in a small community far from any large town. I have no children and I have no boyfriend. Every morning I wake up, and fold away my bed, which is three blankets and a pillow. I prefer to sleep on the floor, others prefer to sleep on old wooden pallets that they make into a kind of bed, but I find that it hurts my back. I light a small fire outside my door, and, if it has been raining, I clean the drips on the floor that come through the leaky roof. I make tea, and get dressed then, if I am feeling well enough I will walk the 3 KM to the store, to find out if there is work for me on the banana farm today. If I work, I share lunch with a neighbour, and finish about 4pm. I will get paid R35 for the day. If there is no work, I usually go back to my house, and clean a bit, have a sleep or talk with my friends. Maybe if one of us is feeling sick, I will go and help, bring her water from the river and try and make some food with high nutrition like morvite or soup.
I ache a lot, my bones in my back, my legs, my arms, my head. I can’t walk very fast, because my legs don’t seem to want to work properly anymore. I can tell that my eyesight is going a bit, because I cannot see very well anymore. If I eat a lot I usually feel sick, and I get stomach infections about once a week. I get cold very easily, and I lose weight. I am losing weight very fast now, I am very very thin, none of my clothes fit me anymore.
But, I have good days and I have bad days. I enjoy singing, going to church and talking to my friends, going out to socialise at a little cafe next to the store when I have some spare money and cooking traditional, Zulu or Mozambican food. I love clothes, getting my hair done (although a lot of it has fallen out now) and my nails painted at the salon – really, I’m just like you underneath it all.
Sometimes when I go into town, people stop and stare, although, nowadays there are so many people like me that it doesn’t happen so often. I would love a child, but for me, it is not sensible. I know I don’t have much longer left – I can’t afford to look after myself as well as I would like, I need vitamin supplements, mineral tablets, protein, lots of very fresh fruit and vegetables, anti-nausea tablets, strong painkillers and I can’t afford it every day.
I make an effort to help educate others about this condition, and how to avoid it, or how to live positively with it. Mostly I am positive, but my positivity comes from being realistic. I have no false hope, no silly thoughts, I am just living each day as fully as I can and making an effort to help others in the same situation as me where and when I can. I know it is not fair, I knew nothing about HIV when I was younger, I didn’t understand, but it has happened and I am living with it inside me as best I can. Day to day.