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Farmer and workers fight Aids together

Claire Keeton

Labourers defy stigma and superstition to participate in HIV-testing programme

Sex is one of few options for the farm workers of Skuinsdrif to unwind - but, like the tobacco they cultivate, it can be deadly.

Skuinsdrif, a small town not far from writer Herman Charles Bosman's legendary Groot Marico, in North West, has a post office, a bottle store and an agricultural depot.

It seems too remote to have been hit by the HIV epidemic rampant in the rest of the country.
But the men from here and nearby settlements are migrant miners
who sometimes return infected.

A truck route passing through the town also spurs on prostitution.

Unsafe sex is commonplace and marriage is expensive.

Only two of the 140 workers at Maswela tobacco farms in Skuinsdrif have paid the six-cow ilobolo (bride price) required to be wed.

"These days a lot of people tell me they are with the virus," said prosperous traditional healer Lesolobi Mokake.

But many still deny they have Aids and explain their illness away by citing the local myth of "boswagadi". This is believed to afflict those who fail to abstain from sex or take umuthi after a partner dies.

The superstition that people who find out their HIV status will die soon after this discovery also fuels the spread of the disease.

Despite these influences, 100% of the staff of Maswela farms went for HIV testing in South Africa's second Know Your HIV Status campaign conducted on a farm.

The farmer Daan vander Merwe said of the pioneering campaign: "We lost a lot in man hours but gained so much by doing it."

The euphoria that swept through Maswela farms at the culmination of the initiative last August, when 116 of the 140 labourers tested HIV negative, was one of its rewards.

Two of those who tested positive were not surprised and, for the first time, felt free to share their secret with each other.

Now Lebuang, 25, and Andries, 30, are willing to talk about living with HIV.

The pair, who talk and laugh easily together, told their stories behind drawn curtains - yet they accept that their fellow workers could find out that they have HIV from this story.

Andries, a driver for Maswela farms, and seasonal tobacco worker Lebuang said it was too difficult to tell them face to face.

They did tell Vander Merwe since he is committed to supporting staff with HIV.

Andries said the farmer's promise makes a difference. "He understands, and we have a good relationship."

The campaign had an impact beyond the farm's muddy trenches, with 101 people from local communities, including 26 traditional healers, joining in.

HIV testing has more than doubled at the local mobile clinic following the campaign, a pilot project funded by the Primary Agriculture sector education and training authority.

Farm manager BoesmanMatlanyane, one of 23 peer educators trained during the People Management HIVcampaign at Maswela, said: "If you know your HIV status, you can drive yourlife."

But negotiating safe sex, and disclosure, is not easy.

Lebuang, angular under a baggy striped T-shirt, had to persuade her boyfriend that they needed to use condoms at the same time she told him that she had HIV.

Even though she is convinced that her boyfriend of eight years infected her, she struggled to raise her HIV status with him.

Lebuang said: "After I found out I had to speak to him but I could not do it straight away. It was hard to tell him. I waited until he wanted us to sleep together.

"Then I told him I was sick and he asked from what. I told him that I had got the virus.

"At first he agreed to go for a test and then he refused. He denied he had the virus."

She believes her boyfriend infected her when he returned home after a long absence.

When he got back home, she fell pregnant with their second child. Her baby died a day after being born and Lebuang, who had tested negative for HIV in 2001, was told that she was HIV-positive.

She has not seen herboyfriend since she moved out of his house last year and has been living withan aunt in Uitkyk, not far from the Maswela farm.

Lebuang, who tends tobacco plants, turned to Matlanye for support.

"I told Boesman that I have HIV and he gave me courage. It is my intention that he is by my side to tell my family."

She said: "It is difficult to tell my family that I have HIV. That is why I want it to be written down."

In contrast, Andries's girlfriend, who has an eight-month old baby with him, stayed committed when he told her that he was HIV-positive.

"I was afraid she would leave me but she stayed with me," said Andries.

Following his disclosure, she had an HIV test, which was negative.

Andries said he has no idea who gave him HIV.

"I had a few girlfriends but not that many," he said hesitantly.

Andries found out he had HIV when he was treated in hospital for TB. On discharge, staff told him to go to the community clinic, where the nurse advised an HIV test. "The result was positive and I felt shocked and very worried. This is why I spoke to Boesman and he helped me," said Andries.

He added: "My parents felt very worried as it was something new to them. They feel better now they see how I am doing.

"If you take care of yourself, life doesn't change much after HIV.

"HIV does not kill you when you find out you have it. I still feel healthy and okay."

Copyright 2005, Used with permission from The Sunday Times.

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