Sister act

For most of those years, they have worked as nurses in the suburb of Soweto, witnessing the scourge of the HIV/AIDS epidemic grow in South Africa.

It is the beginning of the week and the two gogos, who are both proudly boast that they are in their seventies, walk amongst the young mothers in the Perinatal HIV Research Unit (PHRU). Both work there as educators, Ramagole in AIDS vaccine research and Keswa in antenatal care.

‘€If you ask for Matilda here, no one will know who Matilda is,’€ says Ramagole. ‘€œI am Mamagole to all the counselors and the sisters.’€

Dressed in a blue and white striped suit with a Louis Vuitton bag and coiffed hair, she is very different from the average gogo.

‘€œThese young people laugh when we tell them about sex. We say to them ‘€˜who said at our age we don’€™t have sex?’€™’€

As a former nurse, Ramagole now educates people about taking part in vaccine trials.

‘€œI have to make sure they [community] understand [about vaccine trials]. For 30 years, I have seen HIV infections grow but there is no change in the attitude,’€ she says.

‘€œWe are so informed. We know how HIV is spread, we know there is treatment, yet we do not change our attitude and still there are infections.’€

Reminiscing about the days when they worked as nurses, the two laugh about being teased by the doctors at the unit for talking to the young boys at a petrol station.

They have witnessed the epidemic during apartheid, watching as more and more people began to be infected.

‘€œWe were young, beautiful nurses and it was rare to see HIV patients,’€ said Keswa.

When South Africa was on the brink of democracy, the HIV epidemic was slowly seeping into the informal sector.

‘€œThere was no rising alarm. We would see patients thinking they are suffering from TB and then in the 1990s we thought it were malnutrition,’€ said Ramagole.

Keswa, the quieter of the two, visits the antenatal clinic, counseling mothers on how to ensure their babies are not HIV positive. She has been a midwife for most of her career.

But it was during the 1990s when both women worked at the primary health care level that their eyes were opened on the impact HIV was having on the poor.

‘€œWe would talk to people about TB, not HIV, because of stigma,’€ said Ramagole, adding that if nurses had been educated about HIV, perhaps the alarm could have been raised sooner.

Today the nurses have become synonymous with HIV epidemic.

‘€œIn the clinic they no longer call us by our names ‘€“ they say ‘€˜your people’€™, meaning those who are HIV positive,’€ Keswa adds. ‘€œIf patients are coming to see us, everyone knows why.’€
She adds: ‘€œWe have become experts at identifying who has the virus, whether we at weddings, in church or gatherings, we can see if they have the disease.’€

The spread of the virus amongst young women upsets both the nurses.

‘€œHIV is spread because of a lot of issues, like illiteracy, dependency, non-disclosure, especially amongst young women.’€

Of the 10 percent of South African youth who are HIV positive, 77 percent are women.

‘€œWhat really gets me is when we have an HIV positive mothers, who we counselled to take nevirapine [AIDS drug to prevent HIV infection in the baby] falls pregnant again,’€ said Keswa. ‘€œThat kills us.’€

They both agree that awareness around HIV is high in Soweto and especially amongst the youth but that it is not resulting in behaviour change.

‘€œWe have this culture of extended families ‘€“ so the girls know that if they die, the grandmother or aunt will take care of the children.’€

But Keswa acknowledges: ‘€œWhen you look at how we worked in 1996, with James [Mcintyre] we would test mothers and gave them nothing except advice that they must eat well and exercise. With treatment came hope.’€
Climbing into a silver Mercedes Benz that is waiting to whisk Ramagole to an AIDS vaccine seminar, the friends make plans for the weekend.

Despite the dismal statistics, the ongoing deaths and the pain of seeing more young people infected, they are both happy to be part of the fight.

‘€œWe do it for the love of the job. They can say one day when we gone ‘€“ these oldies contributed so much,’€ says Ramagole waving goodbye to Keswa.


  • Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla

    Bibi-Aisha is an award-winning journalist whose career spans working in radio, television, and development. Previously, she worked for eNCA as a specialist science reporter, and the SABC as the Middle East foreign correspondent, and SAfm current affairs anchor. Her work has appeared on Al-Jazeera, The British Medical Journal, The Guardian, IPS, Nature, and Daily News Egypt. She’s been awarded reporting fellowships from the Africa-China Reporting Project, Reuters Foundation, National Press Foundation, International Women’s Media Foundation. Pfizer/SADAG, and the World Federation of Science Journalists. She’s currently an Atlantic Tekano Fellow For Health Equity 2021.

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