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Last Updated: Saturday, 15 May, 2004, 14:54 GMT 15:54 UK
Living with Aids in South Africa

Alastair Leithead
BBC correspondent in South Africa

South Africa is celebrating its third free and fair election since the end of apartheid but the country's future is threatened by the continuing Aids crisis which is no longer making the headlines.

Aids ribbon
About 5.3 million South Africans live with HIV or Aids
I just do not know whose story to tell you first.

Maybe it should be Nonhlanhla, the young mother so stricken by Aids that she struggles to carry water the 50 metres or so from the nearest tap to cook for her children - one a baby of 18 months who, like his mother, is infected and will soon die.

Perhaps it should be Mimi, who is HIV positive, but doing well on her drugs that postpone the virus's deadly outcome.

She can afford the pills because she sings in a choir where all 15 members are infected - their tours and CD sales make enough money to buy the drugs.

Or it could be the doctors who cannot afford to give the medication; or the volunteers who visit the sick in their homes, doing little more than giving comfort; or the grandparents who have watched their children die and now tend to parentless grandchildren.

Everyday occurrence

These stories can be told 10,000 times over in a country where 600 people die every day of Aids-related illnesses.

Imagine - 600 people every day. If a plane crashed and killed 600 people in South Africa there would be a huge international response.

You struggle to find the words - new words - to describe the extent of this disaster

If that happened every day for a week, the world would make sure it never happened again.

But it is just not news - because it happens every day.

Covering the Aids epidemic as a journalist sometimes you have to let such suffering wash over you.

It is the only way. You struggle to find the words - new words - to describe the extent of this disaster.

The story I will tell you is one that caught me by surprise, and brought it all into sharp focus.

It is Gugu's story.

Gugu is a small, youthful woman in her 50s with beautiful round eyes, a wonderful smile and a habit of fiddling with her necklace when she talks to you - like a shy schoolgirl.

She lives in her small mud shack with her children.

She approached us smiling and keen to talk about politics, the story I was doing ahead of the election.

She was bright, intelligent and opinionated. And in her television interview she described her life, what little had changed in 10 years - how she was still living in poverty.

Secret tragedy

Suddenly and unexpectedly she began to sob in the most terrible and pitiful way.

"Come on Gugu," I said to her, "what's wrong?"

Dr Ayanda Cengimbo

Then she spoke - fast and through tears - of her awful secret.

That she was HIV positive, she had just been tested, she was getting sick, her joints were hurting, she was weak, what would happen to the children?

The house would be taken away, they would have no one to look after them, they would not go to school.

I just did not know what to say. I felt all her pain hit me in a moment.

The impact is harder when the words are so unexpected.

Under the hot sun on a Saturday afternoon a couple of weeks later, my mind drifted back to Gugu.

As I stood on the hillside in the cemetery, seven funeral choirs merged into a discordant cacophony; the buses brought mourners to and from the graveyard - every third one of them probably HIV-positive.

More graves lay open waiting for a dozen church services to finish; a queue of hearses waited for their turn, as some of those 600 people were laid to rest.

Soon Gugu will join them - the friendly, smiling face, the big eyes, the beads lying still, the orphaned children.

If it is not a story worth telling then what is?

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 15 May, 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



SEE ALSO:
SA reshuffle prompts Aids anger
29 Apr 04  |  Africa


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