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Living to Save Others

Andrew Kabuura/ Twenty Ten

Location: Witbank, South Africa

The story of an HIV-positive woman.

Associated Features: Living Positive(Photo Feature) Battling HIV/AIDS (Text feature), FIFA Supports HIV Work (Text feature)

Deserted by family and friends, shunned by her neighbours and battling to cope with her status as an HIV-positive woman, 35-year-old Thoko tells her story.

For many South Africans, especially the poor and uneducated, being HIV-positive is regarded as a one-way ticket to the grave. A lot of people start selling their things when they find out their status, but Thoko is one woman who saw things very differently.

“When the doctor told me I was HIV-positive, I knew I had just one more battle - to live longer.”

The 5ft tall, dark-skinned lesbian, lives in a house with an iron roof and explains how differently she viewed her predicament once she realised how many people shared her fate.

“I found out that so many other people either don’t know they are sick or think their life is over now that they positive,” she says.

After coming to terms with her status, Thoko put her life into perspective. She volunteered to help raise awareness in the community about a disease that has robbed her of her youth. “I knew I would never be healed, so I decided to help those still negative not to be like me, and also assure the positive that being infected is not a death sentence.”

Thoko knew that not being educated and coming from a poor background would cripple her impact on the community.

“I am poor so I can’t organize tutors to travel and teach the sick about HIV, buy them food or shelter. So I only do what I can, and that is to talk to them,” she says.

She started an initiative meant to create awareness about the disease, to help spread the message of positive living and safety. Against this background, Thoko is cherished by members of her community.

“Since she declared her status, and created the awareness group, many people are no longer ashamed to go for a test, they are coming in numbers and getting counselling if positive” says a counsellor at the Witbank clinic.

“Logically one finds it easier to reveal their health secrets to village mates or close friends and not us the doctors and nurses. So, many seek comfort in her,” added Dr. Jay, a Nigerian working at Impungwe hospital.

In the remote township of Witbank, a coal mining centre, Thoko has become popular for her willingness to visit and counsel those who are HIV-positive, while advising and encouraging those not infected to stay that way so. “I have now dedicated my life to this. I want to help these people, whether they are like me or still safe,” she says. “One can only live longer if they come out and declare their status and get medication.”

At her shack, two meters from the main road, the activist and her partner sit watching television. “Every evening, I come to my bedroom, watch news and reflect on my day. I also think about what to tell fellow patients tomorrow at the clinic,” she says.

Calm and welcoming, Thoko recounts her journey with a serious expression on her face. In her matchbox shelter she has many health books, outlining how to positively live longer and take preventative measures like using condoms. She also keeps footballs to help the patients keep fit.

“We are living in a very harsh world, my brother. We must fight to save what’s remaining and tell the sick that they can still live,” she states.

After many attempts to muster the nerve, and the persuasion of a Congolese friend, to take an HIV test in 2004, Thoko finally gave in.

“When the doctor told me I was positive, I understood why I was growing very thin and having pale skin,” she recalls. “I was too thin, my brother. And couldn’t move long to find a toilet. I would just relieve myself anywhere because of the running stomach,” she admits. After receiving the verdict she felt relief. “I knew I had to eat healthy, take my drugs and think positive,” she says.

The doctor’s report was not only a blow to her ego, it also led to her being disowned by her colleagues and family members. Leading the queue was her brother. “He ran away. I cried and could not believe it. I have since forgiven him though.” Thoko believes that being a lesbian has enabled her to help women which she believes is the best way to control the spread of the virus. “Women must start the process. We must be honest with our men, keep faithful by making sure we don’t sleep with anyone who is not our boyfriend or husband,” she advises.

Thoko proudly displays medals, trophies and certificates she has won in recognition of her efforts to combat HIV and AIDS. She also has photos of her and the late Brenda Fasie, a popular South African artist. “She was my idol,” Thoko admits. “I even try to imitate her when singing my songs.”

The passionate activist has composed dozens of songs about the killer disease and repeatedly mentions condoms as a method of keeping safe. “All I need now is to promote my music CDs so my message can reach everyone,” she says.

Thoko’s daily schedule is a simple one. She wakes up at 6am every morning, prays, takes her breakfast and by 7:40am, she’s on her way to the clinic.

On arrival at the clinic, everyone wants to talk to the freely speaking and always smiling activist. After greeting the doctors, counsellors and patients, Thoko settles in and the daily session kicks off. The women sing hymns first, then pray and then Thoko speaks. She stands in front of the packed room and talks in the local dialect about HIV and AIDS.

“This is what I enjoy doing. I believe it helps many people to avoid mistakes and stay safe.”

After more than an hour of her spiritually encouraging session, spiced with songs, she answers health questions from the patients. The nurse and counsellor participate in this stage as well.

Its 2pm she goes home for a nap and to prepare for the evening session and her visits with the sick. “It’s real, it’s here and the worst thing is that HIV has no cure. If you’re positive, you have to live with it like me,” she concludes.

Although Thoko cannot erase her past, she can focus on the future and invest what is left of her life in HIV and AIDS awareness work in her community.

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