Zinhle "Zinny" Thabethe has a voice that moves audiences to tears, that brings enormous hope for the future—and for those living with HIV/AIDS. As a frontline activist in South Africa, she provides medicine and counseling to those afflicted with HIV and mentors other counselors who educate and train AIDS patients. But beyond distributing tangible treatment, Thabethe shares something she believes equally valuable—hope.
She is one of the lead vocalists in the Sinikithemba Choir, an internationally acclaimed HIV-positive vocal ensemble. Its name translates to "we give hope." The choir originated with patients from a support group at the Sinikithemba Center, a clinic that provided care even before AIDS treatment was available. "I joined," she explains, "after becoming a patient there in 2002."
The choir's powerful blend of traditional Zulu and gospel puts a human face on an epidemic often surrounded by stigma and silence in South Africa. "By living and performing publicly as HIV-positive people, we show that AIDS can be a controllable, treatable disease. People can live productively, positively, and be happy for the moments they have. That hope has been so important in keeping us going through this difficult journey," she says. "All we had were our voices, but that became a way to break down the stigma, help people feel comfortable with who they are, and encourage others to seek help."
Although born into poverty with few years of formal education, Thabethe has become an eloquent advocate in her own community and abroad. Only about 10 percent of HIV-positive South Africans are receiving anti-retroviral drugs. "When I was first diagnosed," she remembers, "the doctor told me treatment was not available and I would be dead in less than a year. I felt angry. Who was he to tell me I wasn't going to make it?"
Even after losing her job and growing so ill she had to crawl from her mud hut to a pit latrine, Thabethe refused to accept her circumstances. As one of the fortunate few who ultimately did gain access to treatment, she now works tirelessly as a living example that patients from any background can grasp the complexities of their disease and adhere to medication regimes. "The process of education is very important," she notes. "You have to understand HIV, your medication, and what is expected of you as a patient. I felt so much better, just having that knowledge. That's why I became a counselor myself. I tell patients that I may not feel their pain, but I know what they are going through and can help support and guide them."
Thabethe acknowledges the fine line between outside support and personal responsibility. "I can take you to the treatment clinic, but I cannot drink the medicine for you. I'm a strong believer in empowerment. I have always tried to find a way to take responsibility, learn what my options are, discover who can help me, and change my own situation. It has to start at a personal level. That's what I try to instill in the patients I work with."
In Africa, 200 HIV-positive babies are born every day. 80 percent to 90 percent of hospital beds go to HIV patients, and in South Africa alone, more than 900 people die daily from the illness. Because of the stigma and sheer numbers of people affected, the epidemic has dramatically changed society, culture, behavior, and the way people relate to loved ones. "Traditionally the whole village would participate in mourning, supporting, and helping a family who was going through difficult times. Now, death is everywhere, our cemeteries are full, and virtually every family is affected," Thabethe says. "So that traditional network of support is gone. Sometimes family members don't even come to the hospitals to claim bodies of the dead."
To Thabethe, this transformation highlights the crucial need for organizations and individuals who will bring South Africa's HIV crisis out of the shadows and support those afflicted. "I know many people are going through what I go through every day," she reflects. "Only by being open and asking for help will we know that we are not alone. If you have someone who will walk the journey with you, it is always easier."
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