Our meeting today turned out to be the biggest one yet. We ended up with over 20 moms and their children – many new faces; I hope to get to know all of them well.
On the agenda today was a talk by Nikki Davies of the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation – she spoke about HIV, pregnancy and breastfeeding. Also discussed the importance of community acceptance of people living with HIV, and how all people should be treated with love. I really wanted this bit to be stressed – I wanted those in the room, carrying that burden secretly to feel like they’d be safe with us, and for them to take that feeling back home with them to their community.
Some of the moms spoke about the stigma attached to being seen as HIV positive in their communities – how moms can’t even be seen with baby formula without being gossiped about and judged. Baby formula = no breastfeeding = she must be positive. It’s a huge barrier to mothers getting the correct treatment for themselves and their children. Even in their own homes, they are sometimes not able to take their medication openly without fear of recrimination. There’s no easy answer for this – besides people not being bastards to each other.
Rewind a bit.
When Liezl arrived today, she told me that she’d come to say goodbye. I’ve knew she was positive, but things had been seeming good, however – today she was convinced that we wouldn’t see her again. She’s not been well, various infections, has only recently gone on treatment and is supposed to go into the hospice (temporarily) next week – with nobody to look after her 4 children. She said she was tired of fighting, that she was losing the battle. She told me goodbye.
I asked Nikki to speak with her, and they went to have a private chat while I got on with meeting with the rest of the moms. Medically, obviously I don’t have the answers, and whether it truly IS as close to the end as she felt. However – I know depression when I see it and she just couldn’t anymore. No proper diet, no money for food, stress, fear, guilt – all killing her faster than the virus.
Shirley stood up and told us her story of working in the community. Debbie did the same – urging the moms from Ocean View (where she comes from) to be more like the Masi moms – to stick together, to love and accept each other better than they have done in the past – and for both communities to join together to make things better for everybody’s children. It was stirring stuff – so many people so determined to do good – for everybody’s children, not just their own.
Then, unexpectedly, Liezl came forward to speak. This was a woman who couldn’t look anybody in the eye just a few months ago. She told her story and in front of nearly 30 strangers, she admitted to being HIV positive. She said she is “the loneliest person in the world”. She told of her guilt for all the “naughty things” she’s done, of being abused by her gangster ex-boyfriend. She spoke of how people treat her badly when they hear of her status, they won’t touch her, speak to her. How they’re scared of her, as if they will catch the virus simply by being her friend. She’s got nobody, she said. And now she’s going to die, leaving her children without a mother – because of her own past bad choices. She didn’t blame anybody else, she carries this responsibility alone. She cried.
She spoke to the younger girls, stressing the importance of condoms and how it’s impossible to tell if your partner is positive. Her message of fear, loneliness, guilt and regret, so honestly and urgently told, hit harder than any government-sponsored billboard awareness campaign ever could.
I stood with her there and held her hand while she spoke. I looked around the room and suddenly everybody was crying. I was scared for her – she’d taken such a risk by speaking out in this place.
And then the moms started to sing to her – “You are not alone”, they sang. Spontaneous and beautiful – you could not have scripted it better. It was like something out of a movie. They all went to her individually to hug her and speak to her – to touch her and be her friend when she was so convinced they wouldn’t.
She had been rejected so many times in her life by so many people and now there was a room full of people who knew her deepest, darkest secret and they did not turn her away. I was so proud of my people. They did right. I was so proud of her – the courage that took was immense.
I don’t know what will happen to Liezl, or her children. But I do know that when she left – she told me she’s changed her mind and is not ready to give up the fight because now she has a mother and sisters – a family who actually believe she is worthy and valuable.
THAT is what Young Mom Support is for. Overwhelming day.
More pictures on Facebook - but here are some of my favourites from today.