Saturday, March 29, 2008

To Test Or Not To Test ?

The issue of mandatory HIV testing has been playing around in my mind for quite a while now. As if that isn't the understatement of the year, the idea has not gone down well with the Swazi government either. Their take on the ethical issues associated with this is valid, in my books, but who's to say there are no working solutions to get over this? I think we as a nation are far beyond the point where we can debate whether testing is ethical or not. At the rate that things are going, we may as well just go extinct! HIV is just what it is, its a micro retro virus that can't even kill you on its own! How can such an organism be destroying a whole nation? If cancer and other non-communicable, but just as chronic, diseases are on their way to be under control in other countries (ahem, USA), how are we honestly letting HIV get the better of us? Why are we still declining proposals to mandate HIV testing? First let's evaluate the severity of the HIV problem on a personal/household, community, and national level.

1. Young adults, especially women, still want to be "cool". We still want to be known for who we are sleeping with and how much money they make. We still want to be seen in flashy cars and fancy hotels, adhere to fine dining and "live the life". Excuse me, what happened to school? What happened to independence? We all know the sugar daddies (and arguably, mommies, though that is just a hilarious visual if you ask me) have no interest in you beyond what you can offer them physically. Thats problem number 1 -- our priorities are as messed up as messed up can be defined.

2. Even though HIV infection has gotten to the rate of almost 40% in adults, we still find this topic very taboo. I love my culture, I respect it with utmost sincerity, but that does not mean Im an idiot when it comes to analyzing it as well. How can half the nations most productive and reproductive people be in danger of dying and we are still afraid to talk about it? We are afraid to test. The government has made us afraid. Our society keeps us in a tight eggshell bubble that we can't escape even if we tried. U test, then what? What resources are available to you? You can't even go to the supermarket without the neighbors rushing to avoid bumping into you. This topic is so taboo that people are afraid of losing too much weight, or even saying they are sick with the flu. Soooo taboo that the newspapers' orbituary section, growing at the rate of 3 pages a month, choose to specify "minor accident" rather than "undisclosed illness" or worse yet, "HIV/AIDS related symptoms" (I want to live to see the day...). If we don't know what is going on around us, we can't help ourselves, if we can't help ourselves, we can't help others.

3. Investment is going down, down, down. The more people get sick and can't work, the less motivation businesses have, to stay in the country and keep it booming. This goes for private investors and for government franchise. No money is coming into the economy, meaning we have less to support those who are sick, or worse still, those who are not sick and want to continue working. Those who are not sick are not getting jobs, so they will ultimately turn to "trying to live the good life", and get sick. Those who are sick will get worse due to inefficient health care, and die from the bite of a mosquito or a mere cough. Who do we leave behind? The young orphans that are born into an unstable world in a vicious cycle of HIV-Economy downfall, they aren't encouraged to be better, to be different.

In my opinion, mandatory testing becomes an issue when you force people to test for HIV and then dump them with the knowledge, sans resources to help them live better with the sickness, and to help and encourage those who are still HIV-free (yes, all 3 of us). Ultimately, we can't force a nation to go out on a particular day and test for HIV. But, we can still go about it in a systemic way (Please forgive our health minister, who is a Form 3 dropout and may not be at liberty to make informed judgment). For one,
rumour has it, Swaziland is starting a free primary education for all programme starting a year from now. I think that is the perfect platform. Free primary education not only means we can all finally reach secondary level now (even the ministers to-be), each one of us will have access to a school, regardless of where they come from. If we are now offering free primary ed, what is wrong with mandating an hiv test as a requirement to get into the school?

Of course, we wont just stay there, we can then provide the education and resources for all those who test positive. We already have organizations like the Family Life, PSI, the Baylor Clinic, among others who provide free testing and support. ARVs are now (i am excited about this) distributed via NERCHA and not the ministry of health (who, for years on end, ran out of supplies because they could not manage the in-flow very well). It takes one committee to do this. Get all these organizations together and say, ok. Lets strategize a plan to help those kids who are coming into this free program (hopefully, all kids) by providing them with the drugs they need, the motivation they need, and the comfort they require. It might be dangerous to alienate them and put them in their own "classrooms with special speeches", but I certainly think there is a way to incorporate awareness and empowerment among all students, regardless of their HIV status.

The bottom line is I am tired of inefficient governments who refuse to even TRY, in the name of ethics. Are we really still debating ethics? HIV is not being ethical about who it kills and who it doesn't. It certainly isnt being ethical about our economy either.

So if you ask me, to test or not to test?
To test.
To live.
To believe.
To conquer.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Dear Mummy

Sawubona Make.

Forgive me foza, for writing this in English. Not only am I cc'ing many non-SiSwati speakers in this letter, but I am a victim of my surroundings, where I have sadly learnt to think in English and read more English in a day than I eat pap and borewors. I do promise though, that someday soon I will write to you in um-free, like-free, free flowing SiSwati. Can you believe how long it has been since I ate a nice succulent, perfectly marinated, open-fire cooked, sizzling, juicy peace of borewors? It is almost illegal. The things I would do to have that for all breakfast lunch and supper! Atleast I still have my mama to welcome me home with a braai complete with salads (real salad, not leaves put together on a dish) and fanta . Maye vele naleFanta has been versatile lately, remember when it was just Orange. Where did pineapple cherry and grape creep in? Unbelievable. But we have to accept it right? Change. And that is the subject today, of my letter to the most admirable woman I have ever known.

25 years eh? How does it feel? How does it feel to have known me since I was negative 9 months? To breastfeed me and watch me develop into a jolly girl (I was jolly), and to an imperfect young woman? What are the fondest and worst memories you have of our 25 years together? Remember the time you used to beat me atleast three times a day with a yellow plastic belt (where on earth did you get that monstrosity), or when you encouraged me to run away and but gave me the home phone number incase I felt like returning? How about the first time I learnt to talk, what was my first word? What was my fifth? Im sure it was "chicken". Remember when I first learnt how to cook? The day I came home from the usualy long day in school and made the most horrible, saltiest chicken stew that man could dare to taste? And yet you coached me on, and you forced yrself to dutifully swallow half-cooked rice and salty chicken with half a bottle of cooking oil with a smile on your face. I enjoyed the cooking lessons that came after that, and I am now proud to say my stew is lekker! And it has a decent amount of salt.

Did you ever imagine what Id look like? When you studied and taught in the US, did you ever picture me studying here? What were your dreams for me? What do you think of me now? Tell me again, the story of when I came home one day with no uniform, no schoolbag, no socks and no shoes. Did your jaw handle the drop? What about when I saw your first tear? When Mandela came out of prison, holding hands tightly with Winnie. You gave me a look of courage, and helped me develop a spirit of perserverance. You would never let me fail, even if I did. And how come you always favored my brother in our fights? First of all, he was the one that started everything, so of course me I had to burn his clothes. Where do you get your ideas from? How do you manage to raise your children with such grace?

The world is different now that we dont live together during the year. I am witnessing a presidential campaign between a black man and a white woman, I am learning everyday about my responsibility as a young (I am young) Swazi woman in this fight for survival, where we can't just think about our own survival and then turn on the TV and call it a day. I am learning more everyday, what it means to love, to care, and to be concerned, with my name nowhere in the picture. I always remember your quotes, your funny statements and your looks that say a thousand words. Many of our friends and relatives have died of AIDS, thank you for always letting me know that "the power of the mind and your faith in God is way bigger than anything you will ever see". We take small steps, but I assure u, Mama Fakudze ... that we are getting there. If we get there paralyzed and beat down, we still are. Thank you for teaching me that we can always change. Ourselves and our situations. Mostly, ngiyabonga for teaching me that we can change with grace and style.

It is hard to imagine a woman that is beautiful, an overcomer, hard-working, God fearing, most loving, holding 3 fulltime jobs of motherhood, marriage and education, continously smiling, always cracking jokes, fierce, calm, a dreamer all in the same package. It is hard to think how you raised 3 very different children and 3 grandchildren (none coming from me in a while jo) with the same morals and principles, how you know when to talk, when to listen, when to cry, when to smile, when to scold and when to comfort? I can't possibly think there is a woman out there that fits my description of a "powerhouse", a woman who, just by existing, will get me out of many troubles, talk in my head and tell me the truth even when it hurts. And yet, that woman found me in 1983. That woman is you.