I’ve been in South Africa for three weeks now and it’s almost time to leave, but I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of this complicated country.
I’ve spent most of my time in Kwa Nuyswa, a semi rural Zulu community about 40 minutes west of Durban. This is an area marked by several issues, all which are as complex as each other.
Several times, we have been confronted by these issues, and I certainly haven’t even begun to comprehend the full extent of them.
Just Sunday night, Lani and I were driving home from dinner at our friend Senzo’s house. There’s one road that goes through the valley, with several smaller dirt roads branching off. This is not really a place two young Australian girls should be driving alone at night, but we’ve always been very careful and make sure to lock our doors and not slow down along parts of the road where people are standing around.
As we rounded a corner, I saw four men and what looked to be a girl walking from the road down the hillside. Two of the men appeared to be carrying the girl by her arms, and she looked like she was drunk. If what I think I saw was accurate – it could have been a male friend the men were helping to walk home after a night of drinking, for all I know – then it was likely that she was taken off to be raped.
And there was nothing we could do.
Rape is a huge issue here. Young girls are raped – often on more than one occasion – and the perpetrators are rarely punished. Most victims have to see their rapist as they walk to school or go to work, as it’s someone they know from the community.
One of my friends here has told me several stories about things that have happened to girls she knows. A few years ago she was at the birth of a baby which was the consequence of rape. The girl was 13 at the time she gave birth. The baby was adopted out. Today, that same girl is 16 and she just had her second child. It’s to the guy that raped her the first time.
It seems everyone here knows someone who’s been raped, but it’s not something that’s talked about.
Then there’s HIV, which also isn’t talked about. People die of “illnesses” which aren’t disclosed. My friend Liv works for McCord Hospital in Durban and has given us some great insight into why HIV affects almost 30% of the population in South Africa – yes, that’s right, 30 percent.
Along with low condom use, multiple partners, myths about the disease, and many more, one of the main reasons that HIV is such a huge problem is that people don’t talk about it. It’s a secret that gets swept under the rug, something that’s still considered taboo despite it affecting so many people.
But HIV is manageable – it’s not curable but people can still have meaningful lives, they can live for a long time, they can have relationships and children and jobs. If only people would talk about it and get the right treatment.
We spent a couple of days at McCord interviewing caregivers and children for the Sinikithemba Program, which several Americans sponsor. This sponsorship covers the monthly fees for the necessary drugs. It was quite confronting. One boy I interviewed had only found out he had HIV that day. That was really hard. He obviously knew that he had been taking drugs for some time, but possibly didn’t fully understand why. We stopped the interview and decided to chat about soccer and some lighter subjects.
In our second week in South Africa we spent half a day interviewing the caregivers of boys at a children’s home in Durban. On top of being in a terrible situation with no family or no family that wanted or could afford them, some of these boys also had HIV. One boy’s parents had died and his grandmother had sent him to the home because she was scared of his HIV status. This boy is only 8 years old. When we met him later to photograph him, he was absolutely gorgeous with a huge, beautiful smile and fun personality.
We played with small children of only three or four years old, who have to come to the Sinikithemba HIV Clinic at McCord Hospital (Sinikithemba means ‘we have hope’ in Zulu)each month for treatment. Pushing them on the swings and picking them up and spinning them around, they seemed like normal, happy kids – although very poor ones – but with a huge burden hanging over them.
Also in our second week here we visited Empilweni Primary School where we watched a magical concert put on by all the kids in the school. But it was hard to imagine the education they’re getting. While the only school in the area teaching English – which will certainly help them in the future – Empilweni was nonetheless a sharp contrast to the primary school I went to. Kids learn in small classrooms, sharing desks and often using things like buckets for chairs. Many of them didn’t have proper school uniforms, and lunch is provided each day – often the only meal some of these kids will receive. There is often up 70 children in a classroom, and a severe shortage of teachers due largely to them dying from the HIV crisis.
The teachers do the best they can and I met some really passionate teachers who love children and want to teach them everything they can. But one of the big issues is poverty. Many of the kids don’t really try because what’s the point continuing school if you know you won’t be able to afford to go on to university?
Even if I spent months or years here I still wouldn’t be able to fully understand this country and its challenges.
This has been such an amazing and important trip, and I’m lucky that I’ve had so many friends here letting me into the intricacies of their lives. I’m glad that I’ve had the opportunity to at least begin to understand these issues, and to see the other side of South Africa.