By: Allie Morse
Think of ten friends. Now imagine four are dying. This is how HIV/AIDS is ravishing Khayelitsha, South Africa’s fastest growing township. I am one of five Canadians who was privileged enough to work in South Africa this past summer with
the incredibly dynamic grassroots NGO, Ikamva Youth.
Ikamva Youth’s focus is to provide disadvantaged youth with necessary tutoring to continue their education, and works primarily in Khayelitsha, a township plagued by violence, poverty, and HIV/AIDS. The organization was founded in 2003, but has already had numerous successes. Last year two-thirds of Ikamva’s “learners,” were accepted into university and received funding so they could enroll. While Ikamva’s primary focus has been tutoring, they expanded their programming to include HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention workshops and created an arts-based initiative for the youth.
The five Canadians worked with local youth to create a photography project. None of the “learners” had ever been offered an art class in school and very few had ever seen a camera, let alone taken a photograph. However, with the help of Canadian and South African donors, Ikamva Youth was given twenty-five digital cameras for their “learners.”
Each Ikamva “learner” had two days to take photographs. The results were remarkable and a local exhibition was staged in the local library entitled “Through Their Eyes.”
One photo, taken by Noluthando Sithole, was particularly powerful. The sixteen-year-old was walking through Khayelitsha on a Sunday afternoon and witnessed the body of a friend being carried out of an abandoned house on a stretcher. The victim, a girl of 14, had been raped and murdered. The photograph she took captures the state of violence
South Africa suffers from very elevated rape rates, which many believe are a function of the belief, held by many, that a man can cleanse himself of HIV/AIDS by having sex with a virgin. Misunderstandings about AIDS were rampant as we found while facilitating sexual education workshops. Many believed that the disease was caused by poor nutrition and some even believed that condoms were bad for your health.
There is little understanding of HIV/AIDS there as any health education in schools it is abstinence-based, insufficient, and irrelevant. This is hardly surprising when you learn that public officials perpetuate these myths. Their health minister has claimed that those who eat properly can avoid infection, and President Thabo Mbeki has expressed doubts about the scientific link between HIV and AIDS.
It is difficult to do justice to the current reality of HIV/ AIDS in South Africa’s townships. My friend Phumela, one of the
youth we worked with, was only 15 and had been to hundreds of funerals. Death has become a fundamental part of life for those who live in Khayelitsha. While quite elevated, national statistics on the rates of HIV/AIDS infection and death are inaccurate due to the fear of stigmatization. South African politicians worry about tarnishing South
Africa’s international reputation, and thus accurate statistics are elusive. Many people avoid getting tested because they
fear the results, and subsequent isolation from their community. In addition, victims’ families often attempt to avoid community disgrace by claiming AIDS- related deaths were caused by other illnesses. The harsh reality is that in many townships, particularly Khayelitsha, approximately 40 per cent of the community is HIV positive.
Despite the devastating effects of AIDS and violence, Khayelitsha is an inspiring place and it would be a disservice if I did not attempt to convey the extraordinary spirit of Khayelitsha’s community. Throughout my time in Khayelitsha, the
“learners” made me appreciate both the troubles and triumphs of South Africa. The wounds of apartheid are still fresh, but this generation of youth has the power to move forward and put an end to violence in the townships. The greatest
battle being fought right now, though, is to ensure these youth stay alive to shape the future. Without adequate access to relevant health education, they won’t.