It felt slightly wrong. I mean, I knew it wasn’t really any of my business, but my curiosity somehow got the best of me. I slipped into the room next to mine at my homestay and picked up the bottle on my grandmother’s dresser. The description was in Afrikaans but I was almost positive of the translation; I was staring at a bottle of antiretroviral (ARV) medication. My suspicions were confirmed, and there was suddenly a slump in my shoulders and a knot in my throat. An innocent little girl that I lived with was HIV positive. A million questions raced through my mind. Why her? And not her siblings? Does she understand? Is it common knowledge? Will she be angry when she gets older?
In a region where HIV is as common as the flu (at least that’s how it felt at times), I wondered if they viewed it differently. A funeral occurred as often as a soccer game. One weekend, there were three funerals in my village. Someone two doors down died. It’s easy to spot a death because a white tent is erected, and it’s a weeklong process of vigils and services. I arose one Saturday morning at 6:30 and my grandmother was already gone from the house. My cousin showed up shortly after breakfast, and I asked her if my grandmother had gone to my friend’s brother’s funeral. “Oh no,” she said. “She went to a funeral over there,” and pointed toward a street in the other direction.
And even as common as HIV/AIDS was in the village, I still lived in a state of somewhat denial. Not denial that HIV is rampant, but with that ‘it won’t happen to me/them mentality’. There’s just no way that a child, a very innocent child, could have this horrible disease. No one deserves to live with this type of illness, but it’s not even as if you can look at her life choices as an explanation. The choices of her parents ultimately determined the well-being of their children. I was sad. Really sad. As in, I couldn’t look at this little girl for several days without feeling pity and sorrow. And yes, that may sound terrible, but I just couldn’t get over that defeated feeling. I saw her smile, I heard her laugh, and I watched her play and enjoy life, and yet it made me hurt on the inside a little more. Because all I kept thinking is how much longer she would have to smile and to laugh and to play outside. When I stared at that bottle, all I could see was an uphill battle.
But ironically, the hardships in the village in general, put things back into perspective. And as sad as I initially felt, living with HIV is not a death sentence. I needed time to process and to grieve. It is my belief that the human spirit has this indescribable ability to cope, an intangible mechanism that allows one to move forward. To see reason. To explain the unexplainable. Or simply to feel good in the face of something that seems so bad.
And so it is with this in mind, that I started to feel a little better each day. Every evening at 7 o’clock sharp when the local news started, my grandmother made this little girl take her meds. Every day at the very same time. There was no, ‘Wait just a minute, I’m coming.’ No, she had to take it right then at 7pm. Not 7:01….. at 7pm! Not only was I at least relieved at the fact that ARV’s were available in this village (I must remind you that in the late 90’s, even the Health Minister of South Africa was opposed to ARV medication), but that the woman I lived with was so diligent about her granddaughter taking them. And, the grandmother took this little girl to the clinic for routine checkups. Despite the overcast feeling of her living with a completely preventable disease, there was hope and love that shined bright.
It is not a situation to be romanticized. A little girl, like so many of her neighbors, is living with a disease that could very well cut her life short. And it’s simply not fair. But the fact that she has medical supervision and a loving family that sees a bright future for her, might categorize her as one of the lucky ones. Roughly half of the people in South Africa living with HIV/AIDS do not receive ARV treatment. However, access has dramatically increased from even five years ago, so I expect ARV access to continue to grow, as well as a decrease in the spread of the disease.
Towards the end of my stay in this village, as I mentioned above, a friend’s brother died. My friend and I looked at the vigil as a cultural experience and asked our cousins if they would accompany us to attend. On a crisp Friday evening, we were allowed to go out after dark. Around 8pm, we left the house and walked the couple of blocks to his home. I covered my head with my orange scarf and wore the only dress I had with leggings. Since the deceased was a member of the conservative Zion Christian Church, women and men sat separately at the vigil. The ZCC choir sang a few songs and then the Catholic Church choir sang “South Africa Must Be Saved”. It was a beautiful but melancholic rendition. The vigil for a ZCC member will last into the wee hours of the night, so we cut out early at 11:00. The HIV/AIDS epidemic in South Africa became very real to me. It is easy to brush off a statistic. After all, it’s just a number.
But when that number has a face, it takes on a very different reality.