Finding the courage to live

Hamish spends most of the day indoors, much to the disappointment of the toddler. But his parents feel it is the only way they can protect him from taunts and insults from their community in Wentworth, on the outskirts of South Africa's port city of Durban.

"Hamish doesn't understand what is going on. He's just a child. But after the first incident, we decided that he would be better off spending time inside. Like other children, he wants to play but I don't want him to go through what we went through," Hamish's mother Judy Ogle explained.

A recent scuffle between Hamish and a neighbour's child turned ugly after the youngster in a fit of rage screamed: "Hamish has AIDS and he if you play with him, you too will get AIDS!"

Ever since that day, his mother has tried to entertain the restless child at home.

Both Judy and her husband contracted HIV five years ago. After dealing with the initial shock of the diagnosis, both of them decided they would "come out" about their status. It was a decision that led to them losing their jobs, being ostracised by family and friends and left homeless.

"I never thought it would happen to me and yes, I thought of killing myself. But then I decided that I could help others in the community - open their eyes, at least. But when people found out that we were HIV positive they were cold. They refused to touch Hamish. We were living with my in-laws after Hamish was born," Hamish's father, Vernon, said.

He continued: "After we told them we were sick, they threw us out. We were forced to move. But then the landlady of the new place found out that we were positive and she too told us to leave. Eventually we had to sleep on the street, in the cold, with Hamish. It was just terrible. We had to break into this flat we are living in just so that we could have a shelter over our heads. With no job, we had no other choice."

After squatting in the unoccupied flat, the Ogle's approached the city council and disclosed that they were both HIV positive and unemployed. After much negotiation, they were allowed to stay. That was two years ago.

As you enter Wentworth, a mixed race community and apartheid-era dumping ground, two huge oil refineries and a host of other industries dominate the view. However, what ostensibly appears to be ample work opportunities for the area, are illusory.

A drive through the working class community reveals a staggering number of unemployed young people, most of whom are semi-literate. Most people are housed in two-room multi-story flats rented from the city council.

Idle young men huddle at street corners. Some lucky enough to have found employment use their meagre wages to feed an extended family. Some of the youth leave for Johannesburg, the country's commercial hub. Those who remain try to make a living in the informal sector.

Vernon worked as a minibus conductor for most of his adult life. For a 12-hour day shift he earned about US $39 a week. Most of which was spent on his family. That was until he went public about being HIV positive.

"After I came out, my boss took me aside and told me that I was bringing his business down and that it was best if I left. Before that people stopped taking the [minibus]. I would overhear passengers saying things about people who are HIV positive. Bad things. Not really to my face, but I knew it was directed at me. My boss asked me what would happen if there was an accident. With blood everywhere, he said it was possible I would infect the passengers".

That was four years ago. Judy has been promised employment, but the promises have never materialised. Instead they wash cars to put food on the table.

"I really don't know how we survive, perhaps by the grace of God. Washing cars helps but if the weather is bad then people don't need their cars washed. What happens then?" Judy added.

There has been no study on how many people in the Wentworth community are HIV positive. But KwaZulu Natal provincial statistics indicate the region has one of the highest rates of infection in the country.

In Wentworth, schools and community groups have taken the initiative in establishing awareness campaigns.

Kishore Ravishanker, a teacher at the local Umbilo Secondary School encourages pupils to speak out against stigma and discrimination associated with the virus. Strapped for resources, the programme is funded by teachers and the community.

"Kids are sexually active and there is no way of getting around this. We try to get rid of the idea that HIV/AIDS is something to be ashamed of. Shame prevents pupils and family members from even attending counselling sessions which we offer. There is a belief in the community and among pupils that poor people get AIDS, rich people don't," Ravishanker said.

For this reason the school programme has had white HIV-positive speakers address the pupils on issues of safe sex and living positively with the disease.

"Through our programme pupils are hopefully claiming ownership of the crisis and becoming involved in the battle within the community," Ravishanker said.

But support for people living with HIV/AIDS in Wentworth is limited, forcing many of them to leave the community altogether.

Judy and Vernon have found some comfort at the Wings of Love, a church-based community organisation. Started last year, the "love project" targets pupils at primary and secondary schools as well as sex workers within the community.

Project leader Ronnie Peters told PlusNews: "HIV/AIDS is being linked to promiscuity. People don't talk because if your are positive, you are considered un-Christian and bad. A lot of woman in the community are involved in sex work, and those that are not, don't disclose their status for fear of being associated with prostitution."

Peters urges parents to talk about sex with their children.

"The Wings of Love project helps a lot. It makes us feel that there is someone on our side. Living with HIV/AIDS can be a very lonely experience. Vernon and I decided we would have a positive outlook. Live a clean life. Some couples have committed suicide or have separated. My only concern is for Hamish," Judy said.