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How HIV gave way to hope

By Claire Keeton

One day in November 2000 when Sthandiwe Gumede opened the door, it wasn't her mother returning home.

It was a stranger.

Sthandiwe, who was 11 at the time, says: "She told me that my mother (who had been absent for about a week) had sent for me.

"I didn't think she was lying although I had never seen that lady before."

The woman abducted Sthandiwe to Mbabane in Swaziland to "clean, cook, wash the clothes and look after her baby".

Then, in May 2001, the woman abruptly gave Sthandiwe a passport and money to take a taxi, alone, back to Johannesburg.

It seems that Sthandiwe was no longer strong enough to do domestic work because she was ill.

On reaching Johannesburg, Sthandiwe went straight to her home in Kensington, only to find the rented back room she had shared with her mother padlocked and empty.

"The security guard told me that my mother had died in January."

He took Sthandiwe, in tears and reeling at her loss, to the Kensington Police Station.

"They were nice and called a social worker," says Sthandiwe, who was immediately admitted to Johannesburg Hospital.

She was moved to a children's place of safety in Boksburg following her discharge.

About a year later Sthandiwe found out she was HIV-positive.

She remembers: "The social worker was always taking me to hospital and, in the car, she asked me if I knew why I was sick.

"She told me I was HIV-positive and I couldn't believe it. She told me in her office about HIV.

"I spent the rest of the day playing with the other kids."

In November 2002 Sthandiwe moved to Nkosi's Haven, a shelter in Berea for destitute mothers and children living with HIV who have nowhere else to go.

Here she has her own soft toys in the room she shares with a mother and child as well as the bottles of pills she needs to stay healthy.

Nevertheless, with her slight body, eager eyes and fingers stained red from eating chips, she looks more like a child of 10 than a 15-year-old.

In time Sthandiwe revealed to the Haven's counsellor, Heather Snyman, that she had become infected with HIV from sexual abuse by the owner of the Kensington house.

Sthandiwe says: "It was difficult to talk about it because I had been feeling guilty. I had been keeping it secret.

"I didn't even tell my mother."

Sthandiwe was often on her own at night since her mother worked shifts as a security guard at Edgars.

Given her age, it is highly unlikely she was infected at birth.

Snyman says: "Sthandiwe's history is consistent with her records held at the place of safety.

"When a child has been sexually abused they can keep quiet about it for years. They feel guilty even though it was in no way their fault and the adult had all the power."

The Johannesburg Child Protection Unit made an attempt to trace the man. The case is still open.

Since making her disclosure, Sthandiwe's life has taken a positive turn and she appears to be happy at the haven.

Snyman says: "I have seen a 180-degree turnaround since she arrived, thin and withdrawn.

"Now she is empowered and has the courage to be open."

Even so, Sthandiwe found it impossible on her own to tell her close friends Olivia and Nondumiso, also 15, that she was living with HIV. She says: "I didn't know how to tell them and I asked Heather to talk to them."

Olivia says they were sad and shocked to find out Sthandiwe had HIV - and they will always be her friend.

The three lean on each other waiting for the school bell to jolt them into action.

They whisper in class, giggle at lunch break and drag their feet in imitation of the boys walking ahead of them back to their next lesson.

Sthandiwe, who likes the actor Will Smith and the TV show All You Need Is Love, says of the boys: "They are the last thing I think of.

"I want to finish school first."

And her marks are proof of this: when the maths test results were handed out, Sthandiwe had scored 90%.

In her neat school uniform, Sthandiwe is a high school girl with the same dreams as any other.

After school, she goes back to Nkosi's Haven to do her homework and chores.

She plays with her friend Zanele and, at dinner, doesn't want to eat her vegetables, even though she must do so to keep well.

The house she lives in is a wooden double-storey with no space for privacy.

The first time she began to talk haltingly about her past it was raining and the baby in her room was asleep.

So the interview took place on the wooden stairs, with children hurtling past and interruptions from the inquisitive four-year-old twins living there.

Sthandiwe reveals as much about her life through her silences and sudden smiles as in what she says.

This month there were 26 children and five mothers resident in the house with Sthandiwe, and another six mothers and 17 children in the second house on the grounds.

The mothers take care of the abandoned children, yet they have their own struggles.

Sthandiwe says: "The mothers sometimes say to us: 'We didn't ask for your mothers to die.'"

Although Nkosi's Haven is a shelter for women and children with HIV, nobody knows who has HIV or not unless they disclose their status, as Sthandiwe did.

Apart from the late child Aids icon Nkosi Johnson - after whom the shelter is named - Sthandiwe is one of the youngest South Africans to disclose she has HIV.

She says: "We want to be treated as family. We are not different, whether we are living with HIV or not."

When Sthandiwe recently met 35-year-old Sindiswa Moya, an HIV-positive treatment counsellor, she exclaimed that the robust Moya did not look as if she had Aids.

"I don't think about HIV much any more," says Sthandiwe, whose health has improved since she started antiretroviral treatment earlier this year.

She says that before she got the powerful drugs - through the government's treatment roll-out - she was "in and out of hospital every month".

Aids medicines have allowed Sthandiwe to lead a normal life.

Despite missing classes last year, this year she moved up to Sparrow High School, a school in Sophiatown with the motto "Wings to Fly". And that's how she feels now: that her life has the potential to take off, to move beyond the heartbreak in her past.

But there is one link to her past that Sthandiwe yearns to rekindle. When she left Port Shepstone, KwaZulu-Natal, with her mother about 10 years ago, her father lived in Mtwalume and she doesn't know where he is today.

More than anything she longs to find her father or relatives from KwaZulu-Natal so that she has family again.

Copyright 2004, Used with permission from The Sunday Times.

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