Mission impossible?

Dressed in black jeans and a black t-shirt with ‘€œHIV-positive’€ emblazoned across the front, Christina Kopana does not fit the stereotypical picture of a rural Xhosa woman.


However, she seems to move easily among the women in their traditional Xhosa head scarves and layered skirts.


Kopana and Busiswa Joya were the first peer educators to join Madwaleni’€™s HIV programme when Dr Richard Cooke and Lynne Wilkinson arrived at the rural hospital.


Kopana’€™s face breaks into a huge smile when she thinks back to 2005.

‘€œWe first used to drive to Nkanya Clinic once a week and there would only be three people waiting at the support group. Yuh! I told Lynne, we are not going to have a support group here,’€ laughs Kopana.


But the Nkanya Support Group has since grown to 146 patients.

When Kopana, who is also HIV positive, joined the programme she used public transport to get to the clinics, where she helped nurses with voluntary counselling and testing and educating patients.


‘€œChristina is great with the young people. She’€™s definitely got an urban air around her and the younger people enjoy that,’€ says Wilkinson.


Kopana believes the Madwaleni programme saved her. ‘€œI found out I was HIV positive at the end of 1999. I had terrible shingles and went to a private doctor. He told me I was HIV positive, but I didn’€™t want to believe it. I thought he had told me because I was black.’€


Kopana continued her studies in the Eastern Cape, but travelled to her mother who was working as a domestic worker in KwaZulu-Natal in 2004. ‘€œI had a terrible skin rash, I was losing weight and I was coughing.’€


Kopana went to a local clinic where her HIV diagnosis was again confirmed. ‘€œI thought I was next. I had seen so many of my friends die.’€

Kopana joined an HIV support group at the Willowvale Clinic but there were no antiretroviral drugs.


Kopana said she was basically waiting to die and decided to travel to the Eastern Cape to visit family.


‘€œI was waiting next to the road when this old guy with a white beard gave me a lift. I don’€™t know why, but I just told him my story that I was HIV positive. He was a professor from Stellenbosch and he told me about Madwaleni and told me to go there. It all sounded like a dream.’€


Kopana immediately travelled to Madwaleni where she saw for the first time saw HIV positive people who were healthy.


‘€œI was so excited and I decided to join as a volunteer at the hospital. Lynne and Richard were such good people, they taught me so much,’€ says Kopana, who harbours ambitions to be a photographer.


Kopana goes out every morning around 8am to a different clinic and makes sure the venue is ready for the patients’€™ arrival.


She and colleagues then run the support group, hold individual counselling sessions with patients, check their files and refer them to the clinic for blood tests and follow-ups.


Those patients who fail to arrive are visited at their homes on Fridays.

‘€œBut it helps for them to see us and know we are also HIV positive. At first many people think they are going to die and it takes a long time for them to find acceptance.’€


Mpumie Mdineka is also one of the stalwart educators who has been with the programme since it started. A softspoken woman, the mother of two, says the support group helped her to accept her HIV status.


‘€œPeople are not so shocked by HIV anymore. They see that people are getting better, that something can be done.’€


When asked about their humble beginnings at Nkanya Clinic, Wilkinson nods her head: ‘€œWe were told the patients would never come to the support group and it was the hardest clinic to get going.


‘€œThe nurses told us that people would never come. But we would keep going week after week even though there were only three people. So now when people tell us something we are planning is impossible, we remind them of Nkanya.’€



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