By Michelle Hough, Communications Officer
A group of 40 women and children are waiting for us as we arrive in the rural area of Velebantfu. They all have HIV, and so do many of the children.
I ask where all the men are. I’m told they are dead. Musa had told said that life expectancy in Swaziland was 37 years old. Many of the husbands and boyfriends who have died were in their 30s and 40s – an age when they could have actively contributed to the country’s workforce.
The women are now sick and frightened. They have little money and very little food or water. The local hospital provides antiretrovirals, but some women tell me they sometimes skip their monthly trip to the hospital because it is 45km away and they can’t always afford the bus fare. Some of the women I spoke to also have TB.
“I went to get tested for HIV because two of my children had died,” says Thabisile, 37.
Her third child died – even though he was getting treatment – as well as her husband. She now lives with her 12-year-old daughter in an isolated place. The spring has dried up and the only food she has is dried corn cobs.
She was diagnosed in 2007, but now she also has TB as well as HIV. I ask her if she always took her ARVs. She says not always as the hospital where she collects them from is far away. She has to walk 3 miles along a rough track just to get to the bus stop. Then, it costs 30 rand (around 2.60 euro) for a return trip, and she didn’t always have that money.
Last month, she got her ARVs because she was already at the hospital to visit her brother, who was dying from an AIDS-related illness.
As we left Thabisilie, I asked Grace Ntshangase, the Caritas community carer for the area, why there was so much HIV in this rural area.
“People didn’t really know about it until 2002,” she said. “Before that, if sores appeared on a person’s body or they fell ill, they thought they were the victim of witchcraft.”
I was also told that because the King of Swaziland had many wives, it was culturally accepted to have multiple partners.
Thabilisie looked very sick. She had sores on her face and she was coughing a lot with the TB. She usually ate one meal of “sour porridge” a day. She had to buy water from the local shop. Her only income was what she got from taking in washing.
To take ARV tablets, you need water. Studies say that your appetite increases by 30 percent when you take them, so you need lots of nutritious food. You also need money for travel and treatment. Thabilisie was up against enormous difficulties for all of these every day of her life. We gave her some food and Grace said that now she had met her, she would return.
The other women told me similar stories. They didn’t have food, and they couldn’t always afford to go to the hospital to collect their ARVs, which meant they could get very ill.
Dumsile, 32, takes us to where she lives. There are two mud huts and two small cement houses, and yet she lives alone with her 20-month-old son. She says that her brother and his family used to live in the other house, but they have all died from HIV.
Dumsile has HIV and so does her son. Dumsile doesn’t live with the father, who also has HIV and was unemployed.
She has another older child and also a child who died in 2002 at 11 months old. After this happened, Dumsile decided to get tested in 2003 and discovered she had HIV.
When she was pregnant with Bouginkosi she took medication to stop her passing HIV on to him. I’m puzzled as to why he now has HIV.
“I breastfed him,” said Dumsile. “I knew he could get HIV because of that, but I didn’t have any food to give him, so I didn’t have a choice.”