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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 December 2007, 08:54 GMT
Lesotho's club for job-seekers with HIV
By Daniel Dickinson
BBC News, Lesotho

Thirty-nine year old gardener David Damani has never been so happy digging a garden.

Gardener David Damani
David Damani's new job has helped him stay healthy with HIV
It can be physically demanding work for someone who is HIV-positive but the very fact he is carrying the HIV virus is what got him the job in the first place.

He has been HIV-positive for three years and securing the part-time gardening work has been the biggest break he has had in fighting the virus.

"I need to stay strong and to be strong I need to eat good food; the only way I can buy good food is to earn money and this job has meant that for the first time in three years I can look after myself properly."

Mr Damani is no different from the other people in Lesotho and elsewhere who live with HIV.

The fear of being excluded from society, from suffering stigma, means it is not always sensible to advertise one's HIV status.

But this is exactly what this Maseru gardener, along with about 70 others, has done in the attempt to find work.

"I was desperate to find a job," says Mr Damani.

"After I tested positive for HIV, I no longer cared what people thought of me, I just wanted to get well and look after my family and if that meant telling everyone I had the virus, I was willing to do that."

Indiscriminate spread

All the job seekers advertised their services at the Positive Professional employment club set up by a local health food and nutrition business, Positive Health.

Outside the shop are two boards on either side of the entrance. On the right are around 35 small pink forms filled out by women and on the left 50 blue ones filled out by men.

Margaret Ssendija
My sister passed away of Aids-related illnesses a few years ago - I feel that providing a job to someone with HIV is somehow doing something for my sister
Margaret Ssendija
The range of skills on offer tells the story of the indiscriminate spread of the virus in Lesotho where the HIV prevalence rate among adults is just under 25% - one of the highest in the world.

There are bank clerks, journalists, nurses, domestic workers, plumbers mechanics, IT specialists.

The forms also state how long the job seeker has been HIV-positive and whether they are on antiretroviral therapy (ART).

The job club, a free service, was set up by Matseliso Lebakae, the owner of Positive Health and in its first six weeks had placed around 20 people in new full and part-time jobs - a considerable achievement in a country where the unemployment rate is around 45%.

A lot of people in Lesotho with HIV are now receiving ART treatment, but it is less effective if those people are not getting the right nutrition - a situation which influenced Ms Lebakae to set up the employment club.

"Many HIV-positive people come to my shop and tell me that on ART they are now healthy and strong and want to work.

"We are appealing to the country to help them get back into work and contribute to society rather than just providing them with a handout to help them survive."

Open mind

Positive Professionals is advertised on radio stations and on posters, although there are some organisations which are not willing to display the posters either because they do not agree with positive discrimination or are unwilling to be associated with a service for people with the HIV virus.

But importantly, there are enough prospective employers who are willing to keep an open mind about the contribution those people can make.

Billboard in Lesotho
Lesotho has one of the highest HIV rates in Africa
Margaret Ssendija has employed a domestic worker through Positive Professionals and after the first week is "extremely happy" with her new employee.

"She's doing an excellent job and I'm happy to be able to give a second chance to a woman who has HIV."

Ms Ssendija understands that there may be times that her employee will have to go to hospital or may be too sick to work, but that is a situation that she is content to live with.

"My sister passed away of Aids-related illnesses a few years ago and I think that if society had been more open about HIV then, she may have survived. I feel that providing a job to someone with HIV is somehow doing something for my sister."

Back at Positive Professionals another job seeker is filling out a pink form.

It is a small beginning for people living with HIV, but has proved so successful so far that Ms Lebakae for one believes that it is an approach that could be adopted by businesses like hers across Africa.

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