My name is Faith Muisyo, I am currently working for a project in partnership with Shared Interest Foundation. I live and work in Swaziland, a small kingdom located in southern Africa. In response to World Aids Day I wanted to share with you a few thoughts about Swaziland and how HIV and AIDS have impacted the lives of many. This is not by any means an analytical piece, rather it’s just my own reflection of the reality that I find myself living in and interacting with daily.
Swaziland is a small landlocked country located in southern Africa. Life expectancy in Swaziland is 32 years (lower than Somalia that has been at war for the last 20 years) with 47% of all deaths under 5 years of age caused by HIV/AIDS.
Swaziland, is home to world’s highest HIV/AIDS rates with a national prevalence rate of 26% amongst adults (15-49 yrs). Of the country’s population of 1.1 million, there are more than 200,000 people living with HIV. 10% of Swazi households are run by children. These children often lack food and are cut off from basic health services and education. The stories below describes the situation in Swaziland.
Sibonelo lives in Lubombo, the poorest region of Swaziland. She is a mother of five children, whose husband died five years ago after succumbing to HIV/AIDS related complications. Sibonelo used to work in a small private company but has since been terminated as she is often too ill to attend work. Businesses have to contend with creating a conducive work atmosphere due to sick-offs, low productivity, financing an inclusive medical package (for those that do) to cover HIV+ employees. As Sibonelo is mostly in the house, she tries to work on her small vegetable garden. When she can no longer walk the 2 km to her farm, she cannot harvest and sell her vegetables. This means that there is less income and therefore less food for her family. She used to get free anti retroviral drugs from the government hospital. But with the current financial crisis, she is not sure how long the drugs at the public hospital will last. All she has is a month’s supply but what good will this do as lack of adequate food and nutrition will leave her less able to cope with HIV as effective treatment depends on a good diet. Sibonelo’s first born son is only 14 years and her last born two years. What will become of them? If no one comes to their assistance, the obvious is inevitable, drop out of school, be vulnerable and the cycle of poverty repeats itself over and over again.
The family next door is not any better either. 10 year old Simphiwe injured his right leg playing football at school. Over the next few days he was visibly in pain. The school sent notes home, urging his parents to send him to see a doctor. There was no reply, however, because Simphiwe is an orphan and his elder sister Zanele is the sole bread winner. Zanele is just one of more than 78,000 orphans in Swaziland. Each morning, Zanele wakes up at 5:30am, builds a fire and makes a pot of porridge to feed the little ones: Simphiwe age ten, and Sphe, who is five. In the evening, if there is enough food, she will prepare dinner for them. She also helps them with their homework, cares for them when they are sick and reassures them when they are scared. She is clearly a devoted parent to these children. But she is not their mother. At only16, Zanele is practically a child herself, too young to take up parental responsibilities but life hasn’t left her with much of an option. Sphe is her nephew, who was abandoned by his mother, Zanele’s step sister. The three of them live on their own in a crumbling mud home in a remote part of Lubombo. Tall and striking, Zanele has a shy smile and a bearing that is well beyond her years. She has seen more than her share of hardship. In 2005, her father died after a year of illness. A year later, her mother became sick and Zanele began to care for her. When she lost her mother in 2008, Zanele’s world was shattered. After her mother’s death, grief and despair consumed her. She didn’t know what to do and, at one point, contemplated suicide. But then, she thought of her siblings. What would happen to them? Then she told herself that she would live for them. Her strength and selflessness are remarkable. She was only fourteen years old.
Simphiwe, Sphe and Zanele’s is a typical story of an orphan headed household with parents having died in their prime and the children not been spared the stigma and discrimination that is often more vicious than the disease.
When one meets all these lovely people affected or infected with HIV in Swaziland, people whose suffering seems so palpable and almost threatens to define who they are to you, to imagine them as heroic, as stoic and amazingly resilient people. It is tempting to do so because the closer you get to the lives of people, the more you recognize the most obvious things. Firstly, they are not defined by the circumstances of their suffering. They are not HIV/AIDS patients first; they are defined simply by who they are, the jokes they tell, the dreams they have, the anger they carry, the fear they know, the desires they have, their sense of family, of friendship. They are as puzzled by the vicious irony of their circumstance as we all are. They deserve to live a dignified life, they also need all the love and support that they can get.