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South Africa | Gerald: sharing the burden

Gerald had a traumatic childhood: “I had to cope with a lot of things, physical, emotional and sexual abuse, from a very young age”. At 18 he had a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide after the mother of one of his children walked out on him: “I saw it was the end of my life”.

Gerald was diagnosed HIV positive in 2002 after a kidney infection. At that time he was working in a hospital and “saw a lot of people actually dying… that gave me a real fright because I didn’t want to die like that”.

Eventually – after another period in a psychiatric institution – he received counselling and was referred to the Treatment Action Campaign. He now volunteers with the Atlantis Integrated HIV/AIDS Network, and would like more men to be open about their status.”I encourage people to speak out… you can get very sick if you carry this burden alone”.

I was born in a rural area, a mission station, and I had a normal childhood just like other children, but my life really started at the age of seven. My mother was working as an operation room assistant at Tygerberg hospital and when I was seven my grandfather died, and my mother was forced to leave her work to look after my grandmother. That same year she started to drink very heavily because I think the burden was too heavy for her, looking after me and my grandmother, and maybe she wasn’t happy about losing her job.

A lost childhood

I don’t know my father; I’ve never seen him. I don’t know who he is; my mother was not married. But what happened when I was seven, during the phase when my mother started drinking heavily, I was sodomised by a 34 year-old family member – a male – and that changed my whole life.

I tried to tell my mother about it, but you know we were very conservative people and that topic was taboo in our family – because what will other people say and stuff like that… and it kept on till I reached the age of 16 and hmm… I put an end to it.

Due to the fact that my mother was drinking heavily, she was also abusing me. She was taking [beatings from] my father and she was taking that out on me. Since I look just like my father – I’m his ‘twin’ – she would make remarks like: I don’t like you, you are not my child.

So I had to cope with a lot of things, physical, emotional and sexual abuse, from a very young age. As a matter of fact you could actually say I didn’t have a childhood: I lost it when I was seven years old.

I think I tried to make up for the abuse with my school work because at school I was a very one-sided person. I wouldn’t… [mix] with the other guys and I resented males – due to the fact that I was molested. During intervals or breaks I would sit with my books or I would turn away from other people and I wasn’t talkative. I was more focused on my school work, maybe to prove something – but I did very well at school, and I finished matriculation in 1991.

Hard-won independence

I do have a brother, but he’s not my father’s child. He has a different father and he’s also growing up now. We don’t see each other very much, not even my mother do I see very much. Because when I reached a more mature age, like 16, 17… when I made a stop, put an end to the abuse, I told myself that I’m going to be independent.

And that’s when I started my first casual job at the local store in Atlantis. I started there as a fruit and veg assistant and eventually I worked my way up to check controller. It was tough, but I usually worked weekends, and during the week I was going to school.

And it was awkward because I needed to stay in Atlantis, because the travelling was a bit of a problem, so I stayed there over the weekend and during the week I was at home. But when I reached standard nine I start living in Atlantis with my aunt.

I was unemployed [at times]. I’ve worked for, say, 10 companies in Atlantis since I left school, but I don’t know what it is, I didn’t really find what I was looking for until… I eventually ended up with people of TAC, the Atlantis Integrated HIV Network, and those people that work in the community.

Relationships and breakdowns

My first date? I was a very shy person due to what had happened in the past and I was reluctant to approach girls, but after I finished school in 1991, I started to drink and to experiment like teenagers usually do, and I was kind of like a DJ – we had our own disco – and so I met other people and I actually learned from my nephew and cousins how to go about such things but my first date was… but eventually I succeeded.

I was very confused due to the fact that I was abused and… [had] a lot of trauma in my life. The girl I first met is actually the mother of my child. I was 18 when we planned to get married and everything was arranged and… she called off the marriage. I almost killed her and the baby. But eventually I attempted suicide. I ended up in hospital as well as a psychiatric institution. I had a nervous breakdown and saw it as the end of my life.

Actually I have two children: a boy and a girl. Unfortunately I’m not allowed to see my boy, because his mother is married to a Muslim, and he doesn’t know that I am the father, but my daughter is living in Atlantis and I see her every day, and she is doing fine at school. She’s 13 now, and this year it will be her mini-matric and I’m looking forward to seeing her go through another stage. She is actually my first child but they were conceived the same year; so they are both about 13.

Diagnosis: shock and despair

I’m HIV positive. I was tested on the 14th of November 2002 after I had an infection in my kidneys. I did a rapid test and I immediately tested positive. I was aware of HIV/AIDS because I was working at the local hospital. And I saw a lot of people actually dying. The first person I saw die was five days after my diagnosis. And that gave me a real fright because I didn’t want to die like that and it was then that I attempted suicide for the second time.

And the period from my test in November till December, January, was a very hectic time. I ended up in hospital four times, trying to take my own life, and in psychiatric institutions four times. I wasn’t myself. I was shocked – I don’t know, I can’t describe myself at that stage.

Sharing the burden

I first told the lady I lived with. I’m married, but at that stage I was separated from my wife and I rented a room with someone. I understood that lady very well and she was a very nice person.

So I didn’t want to tell anybody at first but it was such a heavy burden. I couldn’t keep it to myself, and she was the first one I told and I… was so afraid of rejection – was she going to throw me out, my stuff out and I’d be back on the street again, because I was separated from my wife?

But she said I can stay, because she knows about HIV/AIDS and it doesn’t scare her and stuff like that. And that was my first experience in seeing that there are people who are concerned out there, and who care about people living with the virus.

[At that time] I had an incident and I even ended up having a court case, because I stabbed somebody and that person died. I wasn’t convicted as such, because I was in a very emotional state at that stage. And I went through psychiatrists and psychologists and I was in and out of the psychiatric institution and stuff like that. But that is something of the past now, and I’m only looking forward.

The importance of people and religion

I’m very religious. I’m a Christian and I believe in God and if I had not had this faith in God, I wouldn’t have made it this far. Because He’s the only one that gets me through the day and gives me the courage to carry on for another day…

I’m a people person. I like to socialise with groups of people. In my spare time I like sitting with friends, sharing my experience in life with them. I like to listen to people and I usually look forward to company; I feel comfortable among a crowd. And I will go to dances and karaoke and stuff like this, just to give myself a nice time.

Playing a part

After I came out of the psychiatric institution the last time, I still needed follow-up counselling at the local hospital with the counsellor who tested me, and she referred me to the Treatment Action Campaign and that’s how I ended up meeting those guys of the Atlantis Integrated HIV/ AIDS Network. I met them through TAC because TAC is one of the member organisations of the network. The network is the umbrella body of various community organisations.

I’m a volunteer. I help with administration duties at the office, and I’m also the Atlantis Wellness Support Group facilitator. I do a lot of awareness-raising and I encourage people to speak out, because I disclosed my own status only a month after I found out – in December – and I encourage people to speak out because you can get very sick if you carry this burden alone. And the virus waits for times like this and attacks you roughly, because you are too scared to attack him back.

Speak up

I do talks at local schools, and functions, youth days and stuff like that, where I tell my life story to people, [encourage them] to do the ABCs of HIV/AIDS: Abstain, Be faithful, Condomise. And yes, I do a lot of work in the community.

Things have drastically changed from a few years ago… And we need more people like me to make this work. Because if you don’t recruit more people and if people are not going to speak up, the virus is going to kill us, and we are not going to get a cure.

‘We talk about everything in the group’

We communicate very well within the group. Some of them are still in denial, and don’t want their status made public; they don’t want to do presentations or speak, and so they will just talk in groups. But then there are others who will go for talks and speak openly about their status. But most of them are still in denial.

We talk about everything in the group. From general HIV/AIDS information to forgiveness to death… we cover a lot of topics in our support group.

We work with the media. We recently had a few radio talks on HIV/AIDS at our local radio station. And we are planning to put some more photos in the local newspapers like Die Son and the West Coast News and we are also involved with Western Cape Necosa and we promote ourselves in their newspaper as well.

Feeling valuable again

When a person finds out that he is HIV positive, he immediately retaliates. He goes inside [himself] and he doesn’t want to mix with the community. He feels ashamed and useless; he feels as though he’s nothing.

And the main objective of our group is to… to make him feel valuable again, make him feel human again… to put that person back into society where they belong. Even if that means we need to do skills development and teach or let that person go for training for a certain skill, that’s our main objective: to get the HIV-positive person back into society where they belong.

Fighting ignorance

My advice to the community about HIV/AIDS is don’t be ignorant, face the facts. There is such a lot of information available at the moment but our people are still ignorant.

And if you look at the statistics and you see that the virus is spreading at a huge rate – because our people don’t want to use condoms. They know if we have sex without a condom it is unsafe, but they still go and do it, and some of them don’t want to stick to one partner. And so the virus spreads. And our young people as well – I understand that they are young but still they take risks… and when they find out that they are HIV positive it’s too late.

Hopes for the future

I would like more men to come out of the closet, because… the men in our community are too scared to talk about their HIV status. I only know of, say, three in our community that are open about their status and we need more men, we really need more men [to do this].

My hopes for the future are that since we don’t have a cure at the moment, we can manage the virus, and that in the future there will be a cure. HIV is becoming more like other chronic illnesses, like diabetes, cancer, hypertension, and you can manage the virus – but my hope for the future is that they will find a cure.

And I want the community to realise that HIV is not outside, overseas or in another town – but it’s here, in our community.

This interview has been specially edited for the web and cut down by more than half. Some re-ordering has taken place: square brackets indicate ‘inserted’ text for clarification; round brackets are translations / interpretations; and dots indicate cuts in the text. The primary aim throughout has been to remain true to the spirit of the interview, while losing questions, repetition, and confusing or overlapping sections. Extracts from these interviews also appear under the key topics; these extracts pull together relevant comments and in a few cases include sentences that have been re-ordered or cut from the edits.

Project

South Africa | Gerald: sharing the burden is produced as part of the Speaking freely on HIV oral testimony project.

Testimonies

South Africa | Gerald: sharing the burden

South Africa | Jo-Ann: joining the struggle

South Africa | John: a loving family

South Africa | Nomafu: encouraging others

South Africa | Patrick: beauty in equality

South Africa | Sylvia: anger to acceptance

Namibia | CJ: fulfilling our potential

Namibia | Karolina: bringing me peace

Namibia | Jeni: leaving stigma behind

Namibia | Maria: information is essential

Key themes

Introduction to the project

Hopes and visions

Challenging the government

Working with the media

Support through community

Why join… or start a movement?

Living with HIV

Gender dimensions

Identity, culture and context