Chief challenges HIV/AIDS stigma

A Swazi chief shrugged off the stigma associated with AIDS in this conservative country and admitted at the weekend he was HIV-positive, surprising and pleasing activists battling the silence that often surrounds the disease.

"For four years now I have had the virus that causes AIDS," Chief Madelezi Masilela told a community meeting in the Vusweni area, about 40 km southeast of the capital Mbabane.

"When I first heard I had this illness, I refused to believe it. I thought someone was bewitching me. But the Red Cross home care facilitators said that life goes on if you take care of yourself. You must live a positive life. Eat good food, get exercise, and don't worry," he said.

Like all chiefs, Masilela was appointed by King Mswati III, and is the king's representative in the area. Swaziland's 350 chiefs are treated with respect by their subjects. Masilela is the first known chief to publicly acknowledge his HIV-positive status.

Masilela used the occasion of the gathering in Vusweni to urge people to go for blood tests to determine their HIV status, and encouraged safe sex practices as a defence against the virus. An estimated 38.6 percent of Swazis are HIV-positive.

"We are saddened that Chief Masilela has contracted HIV, as we are saddened by anyone who contracts this virus. But we commend him for his courage in divulging his status. He has shown true leadership. Others will find inspiration from him, and get themselves tested so they might live long and productive lives, even with HIV," said Hannie Dlamini, who in 1994 became the first Swazi to publicly declare he was HIV-positive.

"We have been waiting a long time for a top traditional leader to step forward as an example. People pay attention when a chief speaks," said Dlamini, the president of the Swaziland AIDS Support Organisation, a counselling service for people living with HIV and AIDS.

AIDS activist Thandie Shongwe pointed out that "in the past, chiefs have sometimes been unhelpful. They have denied the extent of AIDS, and even denied that there is such a disease. One chief was known to put into practice the superstitious belief that if a man with AIDS sleeps with a virgin, he will be cured."

To educate chiefs on AIDS, the Ministry of Health, the United Nations Children's Fund and other groups have involved them in seminars, and have brought health motivators to community gatherings at chiefs' kraals.

"There are 700 chiefs and headmen, and thousands of men who make up all the chiefs' inner circles of advisors, the elders called 'emabandla'. Statistically, at least 300 chiefs and headmen are HIV positive. We hope they will also show leadership, and inspire their communities to treat a health issue not as a shame to be hidden away, but as a condition that gets better with exposure, because people who know their status can get counselling and help for productive living," Shongwe explained.

Chief Masilela said he contracted HIV from his brother, who died of AIDS. According to Swazi custom, a deceased brother's wife – or wives if he is a polygamist – go to the home of a surviving brother, who supports them and takes them as wives of his own.

A United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report last year criticised this custom for facilitating the spread of AIDS. The report's conclusions were based on surveys and hospital data, but were controversial. Royal aides to King Mswati summoned newspaper editors to the palace, and said the newspapers' printing of the UNDP report was "unSwazi".

Health organisations confirmed the report's findings, and were disappointed last month when King Mswati, who has nine wives and two fiancées, declared that polygamy was not a factor in the spread of AIDS.

"This might not have been Chief Masilela's intention, but by admitting he contracted HIV from his brother's wife, he was supporting the UNDP's conclusions that some traditional customs, aside from violating women's rights and dignity, are unhealthy," a health care worker told IRIN.