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South Africans Rescued from Death's Precipice

  • Darren Taylor

Job Mohalalelwa listens to a fuzzy radio inside his shack west of Johannesburg. Munsieville township teems with the unemployed, retired gold miners and women whose only income is puny state welfare grants. A newscaster rambles on, something about the Russian federation.

Mohalalelwa is unimpressed. “No man; they must tell me the soccer news now, not about Russia,” he scoffs. The thin 40-year-old wears a striped jersey that’s much too big for him. He smiles constantly. Wide, white grins reveal a huge gap in his front teeth.

But just a few months ago Mohalalelwa feared his smile had faded forever.

“If I want to go to the toilet I can take something like 30 minutes, because I have to wait for someone to just lift me to go up to the toilet (a few meters away). And my feet also…”

Mohalalelwa winces at the memory. “It was so (much) pain, so I couldn’t even walk.” He was so weak that his wife had to carry him to bed. “I was a baby again. I was no more a man. I wanted to die, like a rat,” he spits.

Will you take my soul?

Mohalalelwa says he prayed to God, “‘Oh my Lord, just take me, because I can see that I am no longer important to this world, I’m no longer important! So will you just take my soul?’”

He’d long suspected he was infected with HIV; but he was too afraid of being tested… too afraid of the stigma that so often accompanies having HIV, petrified of being humiliated in public and shunned by friends and family.

Eventually, a “desperate and dying” Mohalalelwa made a decision. “I allowed some nurses to test me,” he says. He wasn’t shocked when the result was that he was HIV-positive. Mohalalelwa did, however, consider it to be a “death sentence.”

But the nurses showed him how to take antiretroviral (ARV) drugs properly - at the same time, every day - to boost his immune system and prevent him from contracting sicknesses that could kill him. The nurses continue to monitor his health.

“I’m very happy to see them here, eish!” an excited Mohalalelwa exclaims. “I was so sick but today I can tell you I’m alright, I’m healthier… I feel stronger, because of their motivation.”

His amazing recovery

Mohalalelwa scurries around his cluttered shack as he cooks a meal on a gas stove and talks animatedly about his “resurrection from the dead.”

“I was so thin. I was weighing 41 kilos. But for now, I’m weighing 65. I recovered a lot!” he says. He laughs, claps his hands repeatedly and shouts, “I’m going to live! I can even reach up to 60 years! I’m so motivated now!”

Mohalalelwa grows vegetables on a patch of land behind his home. Sprouts of spinach spring from the black earth. He says his harvests are usually so good that he’s able to sell food to others in the community.

He’s also repairing household appliances for extra cash. Best of all, he says his recovery means he’s once again part of his local choir. He sings a Tswana hymn in the dust outside his front door, causing passersby to smile.

Others are not as fortunate

A concrete plaque of a winged cherub painted pink and playing a harp hangs from a panel of rusted iron on Mohalalelwa’s shack. He’s proud that he “rescued” it from a rubbish dump.

But, so far he hasn’t been able to rescue some of his neighbors who refuse to take ARVs: They don’t want the pills to identify them as having HIV.

For the first time, Mohalalelwa appears despondent. He mumbles, “One of my friends died because of that sickness. Just here, next door. I tried to help him but up until his last moment he was saying, ‘No, go away, I don’t have that HIV…’”

South Africa has the highest number of people with HIV in the world – more than six million, according to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV-AIDS.

Nevertheless, the government has made remarkable strides against the disease in recent years. It’s now giving ARV medication to almost three million people. But according to the government’s mortality data, tens of thousands of people continue to die of HIV-related sicknesses every year.

South Africa’s National AIDS Council says some remain untested. Many don’t stick to treatment regimens - opening themselves up to drug resistance and corresponding infections - and some clinics regularly run out of ARVs.

‘A corpse already’

Across Johannesburg in Soweto, Maureen Mabuza sits in the sun outside her shiny silver one-room shack. A few meters away, a group of men and women sit on empty plastic crates. Music blasts from a battered radio as they gulp from bottles of beer.

Mabuza mutters under her breath, “I want to leave this place. The people around here are always drunk, always making noise. It’s not safe for me and my kids.”

Like Mohalalelwa, Mabuza almost died a few months ago because of her “denial” that she had HIV. “I was lonely and when you have no one, the pain becomes worse; you become very ill… I was very, very, very sick,” the single mother tells VOA. Mabuza says a relative “dragged” her to hospital.

“I stayed there for three days and then the doctor chased me. She said to me I look like a dying person. They said, ‘This one is a corpse already; get her out of here; we can’t save her.’”

Death’s door opens

Mabuza says she returned home to die, to her room barely big enough for the bed she shares with her three teenaged children.

“I could feel that I was going to die. Even my children (were) telling me that I… was seeing myself in hell, I would see heaven…”

Fearing Mabuza was “hours away from death,” a neighbor fetched nurses from a nearby hospice.

One of the caregivers who arrived, Kefiloe Railo, confirms that Mabuza was “in such poor shape that death’s door was already wide open. She couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t speak…”

The nurses tested her for HIV. When Mabuza tested positive they gave her ARVs. “We were just hoping for a miracle; we never expected her to survive,” says Railo, gazing affectionately at Mabuza.

A few months later, she’s well enough to sweep her room. She insists she’s fine.

“I’m feeling great; I’m okay, as you can see,” says Mabuza.

Shaking with life

It’s clear, though, that untreated HIV has ravaged Mabuza’s body. There’s emptiness in her eyes and she moves very slowly. She rummages through a plastic bag, shows off creations completed before she became so ill: a floral tablecloth, embroidered shoes; beaded tablemats.

Mabuza says she can’t make such crafts anymore, because her hands shake too much. Then, she whispers, “But at least the shaking proves I am still alive.”