South Africa: The Many Faces of HIV
by Thomas Haugersveen
Thomas Haugersveen, a Norwegian photographer, spent some time with The Salvation Army in South Africa. He reports here for All the World on how the Army is trying to pull together communities that HIV/Aids is tearing apart
THE township of Soweto, just outside Johannesburg in South Africa, can be a dangerous place. Thousands of people are killed, robbed and raped in this neighbourhood every year. Yet this is where you will find The Salvation Army’s home-based care group.
Every day they risk their lives in the fight against Aids. ‘It might be a lost cause,’ team member Julie says, ‘but we’ve got to do what we can.’
|In The Salvation Army’s Mountain View Hospital patients know they do not have long to live|
|An HIV/Aids patient receives treatment at Mountain View Hospital, South Africa|
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She continues: ‘We spend our days informing people about Aids, how it is transmitted and how it can be avoided. We also provide home-based care for people who are HIV-positive – we clean their houses, make food, provide basic medical care and make sure they take their drugs. There’s not much we can do when they have tested positive, but we help them die with some dignity.’
It’s early morning and a minibus pulls up at the side of the road. Five women leap out and the vehicle drives off. This is how the care team gets to the people who need help. There is no point parking a car because, in Soweto, it’s not a question of if the car will be stolen, but when. One of the women smiles. ‘I would give it a maximum 10 minutes,’ she says.
The women are all wearing Salvation Army ‘Fight Aids’ T-shirts. These spread an important message but, more than that, the T-shirts may be the thing that ensures the safety of the team. ‘People get killed here all the time, especially people who don’t live here like us,’ explains Julie. But The Salvation Army has a very good reputation and that helps with the work. Even so, there’s no place for complacency – this is Soweto after all. ‘People can turn on you in a second, one is never safe here.’
The worst fear is that they will be raped. The mainstream media shies away from the fact that one of the biggest causes of new HIV cases is rape. It has been said that, growing up in South Africa, you are more likely to be raped than learn how to read.
A young man decides to join us for the day – he’s just out of jail for car-jacking. His attitude sums up much of what the team is fighting against. ‘This is a man’s world,’ he says. ‘We can do whatever we like to women. If I bring someone I like a bottle of coca, she will have sex with me. This is the way it works.’
The women on the team are worried, but not scared. ‘Working with The Salvation Army somewhat protects us,’ says Julie. ‘People understand that we are trying to help them, trying to do some good.’
The home-based care group continues its work, visiting people’s houses, caring for the sick and trying to get across the right messages to those who are not infected. It’s a sometimes thankless job, admits one of the team: ‘It may be pointless trying to inform people. It seems that they do not have respect for death – they think that if they get infected, then it was meant to happen. Yet if we can save one life it will be worth it.’
|The Salvation Army’s Mountain View Hospital, in Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, is less than 400 miles from Soweto but its rural setting could be another world compared to the urban sprawl of Johannesburg. But HIV/Aids has a stranglehold here too.|
Captain Thomas Sesedi, hospital administrator, looks around the blue-painted room. ‘They are all dying,’ he says. Each bed is inhabited by someone on the last leg of their life. There is nothing The Salvation Army can do for them except provide a dignified departure. People go to the hospital to die – they know there is no way back. Out of the 80 patients at the hospital 20 die each month. It’s a death factory.
Although the patients at Mountain View are HIV-positive, there is no way the centre can be defined as an HIV/Aids hospital. The stigma is far too great. Captain Sesedi explains: ‘If people in the patients’ home villages got to know they were in an Aids hospital, the remaining members of their family would lose their friends and respect in the village. Yet the strange thing is that this area has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world.’
Official figures suggests that about 30 per cent of people in the area are HIV positive but local aid workers assume the figure to be closer to 60 per cent. With more than half the population being HIV-positive it’s actually more ‘normal’ to be HIV-positive than not. And yet the stigma and shame remain.
‘Its sad,’ says the captain. ‘Not only are these people dying, but they also have to be ashamed for dying.’
In another blue room one of the patients notices my camera. He removes his blankets, he is naked. He is not as skinny as most of the others but he is covered in sores. ‘Take my picture,’ he says. ‘Let them see what happens. They need to see it, they need to understand.’
I’m not sure who ‘they’ are, but I agree with this man – they need to see it, they need to understand.
For more information about Thomas Haugersveen – and to see more of his work – go to: www.haugersveen.com