An inspirational woman Living with AIDS # 501

At over 70 years of age, Lorna Fisher, affectionately called Mam’€™ Lorna by members of her community of Eldorado Park, an area formerly classified as a coloured area in the south of Johannesburg and all those close to her, should   already be enjoying her old age years. But Mam’€™ Lorna isn’€™t. Instead, she is up very early every morning to start work at a community centre she started 12 years ago. Mam’€™ Lorna walked away from her lucrative supermarket business to start PUSH (Persevere Until Something Happens), a non-clinic based centre in the bustling area of Kliptown, the birth-place of the Freedom Charter, where people could voluntarily test for HIV.

‘€œThis place here has got lots of movement, as you can see there are taxis, buses, and so on. And we wanted to be accessible and reach out to many people during the year 2000, when we started the organisation. We had a purpose to work around HIV because we realised there was no information around HIV in the community’€, Mam’€™ Lorna says about why she started PUSH.

Kliptown, where PUSH is located, is now renowned for its trader’€™s market. The place is also closer to Soweto. To date, the centre has tested over 30 000 people. But, Mam’€™ Lorna says the numbers didn’€™t come easily.

‘€œIt wasn’€™t smooth sailing’€, she says. ‘€œWe were stigmatised’€¦ We are an HIV/AIDS organisation. People don’€™t want to be seen around you. They don’€™t want to be seen entering here because people would think that I’€™m HIV-positive. But we would stand outside and ask people: ‘€˜Don’€™t you want to come in and be tested for HIV and counselled’€™? People would say: ‘€˜Do you think I’€™m HIV-positive’€™? People didn’€™t react very well’€.

The reaction gave birth to what the organisation would finally be called.

‘€œThat is where the name Persevere Until Something Happens came from. We had to encourage one another to say: ‘€˜You need to persevere. You need to persevere with the community’€™. We knew that the community was stigmatised around HIV. Family members were victimised for being HIV-positive. So, people were not talking. People were dying in silence. And you would ask: ‘€˜Who died here’€™? And people would say: ‘€˜So and so’€™. And it’€™s a person that you know’€¦ ‘€˜What happened’€™? And people say: ‘€˜No, the doctors don’€™t know’€™. And you think: ‘€˜Wow! People are already going to the moon and the doctors don’€™t know what’€™s killing the people’€™. People thought we are, ourselves, HIV-positive, so we’€™re inviting them to come and get HIV. That’€™s the way people were ignorant about HIV, especially in our coloured community. I think, for two years, people would not really come in. We had to build that over the years’€, Mam’€™ Lorna explains.              

But the stigma was not the only issue PUSH had to come against. The organisation provided a service without funding.

‘€œIt was tough! We were not funded. Government continued to work with its clinics. For us to continue giving this service for free was quite tough. But there was somebody that would give us a testing kit; some people would donate to us; we would buy a testing kit’€, she says.  

 Having started PUSH with four other women, Mam’€™ Lorna is the only one standing. The rest left the organisation after getting disilusioned by the community’€™s response and the general lack of support for the project. Today, the centre offers a range of services, including home-based care, care for orphaned and vulnerable children and training of young people in competencies such as counselling and social work. A devout Christian, Mam’€™ Lorna says she persevered because this was a journey following God’€™s call to her at one church service.

‘€œThe way the pastor motivated in the church. He said: ‘€˜We live lives for ourselves. People are dying around. How accountable are we as we are placed by God on the earth to nurture the earth and look after it?’€™ You know, it sat on my heart and that’€™s where it started growing’€.

‘€œI was a business person, but I thought: ‘€˜How challenging is this to me? I am here, a representative on the earth. I found it in a good state. How am I going to leave it?’€™ The passion started growing around HIV. I thought: ‘€˜I am long in this community and people are looking up to me’€™. I told myself that, if I stand up and advocate and be an activist for HIV, people, maybe because they are looking up to me, there might be a shift’€.

Because of her generous spirit and courageous efforts, Mam’€™ Lorna is featured in a recently-published coffee table book as one of South Africa’€™s most inspirational women. With no formal education, the book recognises her in the same light as some of the country’€™s best educated female leaders in the fields such as business, media and entertainment.

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  • Health-e News

    Health-e News is South Africa's dedicated health news service and home to OurHealth citizen journalism. Follow us on Twitter @HealtheNews

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