Jamra primary scholl for children affected by HIV/AIDS, drugs or poverty, Senegal (c) Nell Freeman/Alliance Participants in the Photovioce project, Ecuador © Marcela Nievas for the Alliance
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Citizen journalism from Zimbabwe

2
FEB
2009

Aids Alliance

Each month The Loop is featuring highlights of citizen journalism from HDN’s Key Correspondents. This month Margret Masanga-John interviews a grandmother living with HIV in her native Zimbabwe, reflecting on the need for greater female empowerment.

Key Correspondents are citizen journalists writing about the local realities of those living and dealing with HIV and TB. Key Correspondents can be found all over the world and have one major thing in common: they are committed to raising the voices of those who may not otherwise be able to ‘speak their world’ on health and development issues from the ground. They are facilitated and supported by the Alliance’s new merger partner Health & Development Networks (HDN).

No sanctuary left
By Key Correspondent Margret Masanga-John

I found her sitting under the shade of a tree. Gogo Sithabile Mabhena*, as she is affectionately known, is 68 years old and HIV positive. Her modest homestead in Filabusi is a stone’s throw away from my own grandmother’s home.

It was while I was visiting my folks that I heard of her story and decided to interview her. Here, in the dry dusty land, she has lived out most of her adult life and enjoyed, albeit not fully, her passion for farming.

Titus*, her husband, died of tuberculosis (TB) a short time ago and it was Titus who gave her HIV. As we talked about it, there wasn’t a single note of bitterness in her voice. “It is done, there is nothing to benefit from crying over spilt milk,” she said.

I wondered at this apparent selflessness. Forgiveness is a difficult thing to achieve, especially in circumstances such as Gogo’s. I could tell however that behind this facade of strength and poise resided a fair amount of heartache and pain. Heartache over the loss of loved ones and anger, as she put it, “at a government that cares not for its people.”

Titus had lived and worked in Bulawayo, only visiting once in a while to check on the family, oversee the farming activities and collect the profits. “He could still be alive if he hadn’t been so stubborn,” Gogo said as she reflectively narrated how her husband succumbed to the disease.

Her face darkened momentarily as memories rushed back. “He downright refused to seek treatment at the local clinic. Instead he opted to consult a traditional healer.”

The city has its vices and unfortunately Titus fell into the habit of occasionally taking in live-in partners. One such relationship resulted in a baby girl, who passed away a few months after her birth. The tragedy is that Gogo was aware of her husband’s infidelity but did not take steps to protect herself.

“At the time I used to believe that men will be men,” she said, reciting the pathetic age-old excuse for men’s failure to remain monogamous.

I found her words saddening to put it mildly and her story made me wonder at the way women in Zimbabwe remain in the clutches of deadly attitudes, beliefs and practices passed off as “tradition”.

To my delight, she displayed a reasonable knowledge about HIV and AIDS and was resolute that she would not let the virus run her down. Recently her only daughter, Buhle*, one of her two surviving children, took her to have her CD4 count done. As it turned out, it was well above the optimum level, something she viewed as divine intervention designed to allow her more time to take care of her grand-children.

So far she has not suffered any opportunistic infections. “I dread the day an infection will come up for I would not receive any help at the clinic,” she said, referring to the major crisis affecting health delivery services in the country.

It was midday and suddenly the yard was abuzz with activity. Gogo’s grand-children were home, all six of them. Four of them were orphaned by AIDS. As we talked they went about their chores chatting and laughing loudly. Aged between seven and 19, they appeared to share a bond that transcended age and sex.

“I have always hoped to be able to help take care of my grand-children,” she said, “but not like this, doing it alone and when I’m infected with the virus. It is difficult.”

“Sometimes we have one meal a day,” Gogo continued. “The rains are unfaithful and there just seems to be no sanctuary left to run to.”

Ordinarily, Gogo said she and her grandchildren were able to grow enough food to last them until the next season. “I feel helpless, and I hate to rely on handouts. If it weren’t for my daughter, I believe we would starve to death. Money is difficult to come by as she is a widow and has children of her own to take care of.”

When I asked what her family did about school fees for her grandchildren, Gogo said, “Their grandfather had many cattle and we sell one or two when the need arises.” But school fees are not the only reason for selling off livestock. Food insecurity has forced many families like Gogo’s to sell their assets. Good nutrition is essential for people living with HIV but with the economic situation in Zimbabwe, the fight for regular food supplies has turned into an all out war.

At a time when she should be enjoying her twilight years, Gogo faces hardship in various forms. Not only is she living with HIV, but she has also been affected by the virus on other levels. She has no means of livelihood and political, natural and economic factors continue to make the situation worse.

Sexual practices, beliefs and attitudes continue to place women at a higher risk of contracting HIV and perpetuate the spread of the virus. Some people believe women have no right to say no to sex or to demand safer sex. If they do, they are labelled ‘prostitutes’.

Gogo had a number of choices when she knew her husband was having sex with other women. She could have ended the marriage or insist he use condoms. Instead, she did nothing. Like many Zimbabwean women, she was unable to challenge the cultural practices that placed her at risk.

Women need to be empowered to make healthy choices and be assertive. Strategies aimed at dispelling myths and traditional beliefs about sex should be implemented to back women up.

Despite the bleakness of Gogo’s family’s circumstances, they are braced for the struggle with a passion for life that is visible in their faces. They have not resigned to fate and everyday they push on in the hope that the government will hear their cries for help.

* Not their real names.

Margret Masanga-John

View more articles by Key Correspondents.