Indigo storm clouds are mounting on the horizon as we go into the Mthembu family home in Manguzi. We are just a few kilometers from the Mozambique border and the sandy soil suggests we’re also not too far from the coast.
We are ushered into the lounge and offered seats on a couch and single armchair. Thandazile Mthembu sits on a mat on the floor with her five children. She is wearing a crisp royal blue dress – it’s a bereavement dress, which she will wear for a year.
Thandazile’s husband died in March from AIDS. He was a migrant worker in Johannesburg and used to come home on average three times a year ‘ usually for a month-long break and then a couple of weekend visits. He was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1992 and became seriously ill in December 1999. Three months later he was dead.
For much of the interview, Thandazile sits quietly, face down-turned and her eyes screwed tightly together as she fights back the tears.
er husband’s brother, December Petrus Mthembu, answers our questions in a voice flat with despair. He says the family has many problems. His brother was the breadwinner and since his death there is no income. Petrus is now responsible for the household, but he is unemployed.
When he can, he does piece work for the local teachers or nurses which brings in R100 or R150 a month to buy bread and mealiemeal. This supplements the family’s meagre vegetable garden in which somehow they manage to grow beans, cabbages and some sweet potatoes in the sea sand-like soil.
The family tries to maintain a healthy diet, but they are destitute and there is no money to buy sufficient food. Thandazile’s husband’s UIF benefits were used up long before he died.
Through an interpreter, Thandazile tells us that she knew her husband used to have many sexual partners when he was in Johannesburg. “If he had a misunderstanding with one of them, he would leave and find another.”
After she heard that her husband had the virus she went to the hospital for an HIV test and discovered that she too was positive. So far she is still healthy enough to look after her five children, but, she says the illness “comes and goes, comes and goes”, and recently she was admitted to the Manguzi hospital for treatment. Her youngest child, who is less than a year old, is also HIV positive and keeps getting sick.
The silence and loneliness imposed by the stigma of AIDS is all too apparent when talking to the Mthembu family. They say they are not aware of any other people in the community who are HIV positive and feel they are alone with the problem.
“Within the family, I feel very supported,” says Thandazile, “but the people outside still seem to think that they can be infected by touching us. When my husband was sick people would say, ‘why are you spending such big money when you know you and your husband are going to die?’
“People did not realise that it was still important for us to go to the health care workers to get advice and treatment.”
In a quiet, matter of fact way, she tells us that she has spoken to her brother-in-law and his wife and should she die, she knows that they will take care of her children. ‘Health-e News Service.