May 11, 2010 – “I had a boyfriend who didn’t value my opinion; whatever he said went. When the relationship started, we did not trust each other so we used a condom, for a while. Eight months into the relationship, we just stopped using condoms without even knowing each other’s status.
We had not been using condoms for two years because my opinion never really mattered to him. I knew about condoms but I had never thought that as a woman, I could tell him to either use it, or refuse to have sex with him otherwise.
The sad thing is that for a while I knew that my boyfriend had been cheating on me with more than one woman, more than five times, but I had no power to stop him.
“Even though I knew that this weakness was putting me at great risk of being infected with HIV, I was still afraid. It was a catch-22; I was afraid of getting infected with HIV, but I was also afraid of losing my boyfriend. He knew this and used these power relations against me, saying that if I wanted him to use a condom, then he would have to leave me.
“When I realised that he was cheating on me with a woman who was known to be spreading HIV in the township, I confronted him about this and asked him to use a condom or leave me. He refused to leave me, his family intervened and so he decided to leave that woman to be with me. I suppose I was meant to be happy about this decision. But we still didn’t use a condom after this. I stayed in this toxic relationship, powerless and trapped (also by the family involved) until I went to a Youth in Dialogue session in 2007. This raised my interest in sex and sexuality.
“At the dialogue session, as the youth of KwaMakhutha, we asked them [the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF)] to come back for more dialogues, but to also involve other community members next time. You see, I wanted my boyfriend and his family to witness this dialogue. They could see what he was doing was wrong, but they always encouraged me to be patient with him. Maybe the dialogues would change their mindsets.
“When they (NMF) returned for community conversation sessions in 2008, I was touched by a tool, ‘counting your losses’, which the facilitator, Lesley Nkosi, used during the conversation. It forced me to reflect on the way I lived and the risks I had exposed myself to with my sexual behaviour. I was touched greatly by seeing a person from another province, who clearly had deep feelings of sadness about our sexual behaviour, pleading for a change so that no one else would die from AIDS.
“So, when the community was asked to select an action team, I volunteered as a youth representative to lead the community in conversations about HIV/AIDS, sex and sexuality in my community. This was to change my life forever.”
These are the words of Mbali Gumede, a Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF) community conversations facilitator in the politically divided township of KwaMakhutha, south of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal.
“Being a facilitator gave me the skills and the knowledge about HIV/AIDS,” said the former ward councillor’s secretary, who was appointed as a facilitator in 2008 and trained on the CCE methodology last year. “Moreover, it gave me the voice I needed to change perceptions about sex and HIV/AIDS in my community.”
The rest, said Mbali, is history.
Mbali wasn’t always the confident, collected woman she is today. Her mother lost her job as a domestic worker while she was in Grade 10. By the time she reached Grade 12, Mbali had little hope of ever studying anything beyond high school, because her mother did not have a job. Mbali’s mother died in 2006.
“My self-esteem was so low I just didn’t pay attention to anyone and anything. I felt useless and thought that no-one would even listen to what I had to say – hence my then boyfriend started overpowering me,” she recalled.
“After attending the NMF facilitator workshops, I looked at my life and thought to myself that regardless of my background I, too, amounted to something and so I decided to go back to school. I am now rewriting my matric through Intec College and have also rekindled my aspiration to be a social worker someday. I am also taking a lot of short courses on HIV/AIDS with the support of my manager at the NMF.
“It feels good to know that I deserve to love and be loved and knowing that there are people out there whose lives I am impacting on.”
“I judged myself harshly before I became a facilitator. I was envious of people my age and I always compared myself to them and I never thought I would succeed; but all of that has changed now.”
Not everyone was as excited as Mbali about her involvement in the community conversations. When she told her family about her new passion, this was met with mixed emotion; previously, government officials had come to her community, made promises and started initiatives, but never followed up on them.
“When I announced the news that I’d been selected as a member of the action committee with the NMF, my family wanted to know what it was that was different about this programme. They had seen many fly-by-night initiatives that’d promised the world but never returned to do what they’d promised,” said Mbali.
Since being appointed as a facilitator in February last year, Mbali successfully facilitated 10 conversations in KwaMakhuta during that year – this year she has facilitated the two conversations and she is looking forward to more. Though her dream of studying social work was curtailed by a lack of finances, her work as a facilitator is helping her to realise her passion for helping people, and in particular, women and youth.
Mbali said her work has also changed her perception of HIV/AIDS and broadened her knowledge immensely.
“I am learning so much more about the disease. At first I knew the basics of HIV/AIDS but I was unable to differentiate between the two,” she explained.
“Now, my friends and my family are comfortable disclosing their status to me as they know that [their disclosure] is confidential, and that I have enough knowledge [about the disease] and I am able to counsel and seek help for them.
“From being a person who thought she could never amount to anything to being a person whom everyone wants advice from – it makes me feel really good.
“My journey hasn’t been easy, but I have come so far. My community is happy that they are part and parcel of the dialogue, and helping to find solutions for the challenges they face makes me proud because I am instrumental in bringing change with them.
“There are some people I know in the community who go around sleeping with people without using condoms, even though they know their HIV positive status; they drink a lot and won’t take care of their bodies. Their reasoning is that they feel we are all going to die someday.”
Mbali also believes there are people in her community who toy with their lives because they fear the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS. The local clinic, for example, has a separate section for HIV-positive people.
“When you go to that section of the clinic and local people see you, you will be the talk of the township,” said Mbali. “It’s one of the things that prevent people from getting tested and living freely with HIV/AIDS.”
But problems also arise when community members actually take the test. Mbali said that when some women find out they are HIV-positive, they persuade counsellors to give them negative results so they can show these to their partners.
“In this community, men are scared to test, so the women are the ones who go to the clinics for HIV tests. These women come back with these false results and the men continue sleeping around, thinking they are HIV-negative, only to re-infect their partners and maybe infect other women. I feel that there needs to be a programme in this community which specifically focuses on encouraging men to get tested and know their status.”
Fear of stigma has also led pregnant HIV-positive women to lie to their partners about their status, take Nevirapine so their infants won’t be infected and present their husbands with HIV-negative babies,” said Mbali.
“This leads the partners to think their families are HIV-free and not only is it a lie, but they are putting their lives at risk.”
Unfortunately, Mbali said, patterns of non-disclosure and HIV infection are likely to continue until such time as HIV is considered in the same light as any other virus.
Mbali believes her work as a facilitator has presented her with the opportunity to change people’s lives – and for this reason, she said she will continue to work with the community long after her two-year contract with the NMF comes to an end.
“I have been inspired to start support groups so that we can break the silence among women. Women are abused daily but they are not able to stand up to their abusers.”
She is currently making plans to engage with the eThekwini municipality to open a centre where women can meet and share their stories of abuse and empower one another, build their self-esteem and get their power back.
“At this centre I want women to talk and differentiate between love and abuse, because if a man cheats on you more than once or forces himself on you, it’s not love,” she said.
The stories of hardship that Mbali has encountered in her time as a facilitator have made her more determined than ever to make a difference. One of her most difficult moments occurred when, during the reflections part of a dialogue, a child stood up and told of her neighbour, who was being abused sexually and physically by her husband because she had HIV.
“The child said, ‘My neighbour had full-blown AIDS. She couldn’t do anything for herself; she sat, slept and ate in her own filth the whole day. Her husband would come back from work and sleep with her in that state. He refused for anyone to help her, saying she had brought the virus into the family.’
“My eyes welled up with tears – I struggled to hold them back – this was someone’s mother and yet she was being treated like she was a lesser human being. That inspired me to keep doing what I was doing so that the message went out to other people,” said Mbali.
There are glimmers of hope; Mbali said she has seen changes in individuals, if not in the community at large.
“A child came to me and thanked me for facilitating the community conversation as she is now able to talk to her mother about sex and HIV/AIDS,” she explained.
“There have also been men in the community who have told me that they want to start a campaign to educate men about sex and HIV and for me that is a good step.”
But even though change is there, Mbali feels that until sheebeen owners stop selling liquor to minors and 12-year-old girls start paying more attention to their books than they do alcohol, boys and men, community conversations have an important role to play in HIV prevention in KwaMakhutha.