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Though many of South Africa's young teens think of AIDS as a disease only among the poor, they are learning the hard way that everyone is at risk.
I sensed that my talk about condoms and AIDS was not getting through. Until one recent Saturday, when we had lunch with friends from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana and South Africa at a Portuguese restaurant in Pretoria. The prawns were divine, the white wine chilled, the weather balmy.
Mario, though, was very thin. He said he had pneumonia and meningitis — that is code for AIDS. I understood. He ate slowly and looked around proudly when he finished the plate: good food into his frail body. He had started taking ARVs, he was recovering.
The next Saturday, Mario hanged himself. The burden of being HIV-positive was too heavy. The following Sunday we attended his funeral.
On Monday, a teacher told the class her brother had died of AIDS.
Then it hit my daughter. AIDS is among us. AIDS is not a disease of the others. The next day I drove her to get tested for HIV.
Testing is a truly sobering experience. When you realize the risks you have taken, you pale, you promise yourself never to do it again, to be careful, to use a condom. When you get a negative result, you pledge to keep it that way.
Mario’s death got the risk lights flashing for my daughter. Bless him. May his soul rest in peace in a place without pain or stigma.
Today, I learned that a friend’s 20-year-old daughter contracted the virus from her ex-boyfriend. They had already split when she tested positive. She does not dare tell him. She can hardly cope with the news herself, she can’t cope with the blaming game that might ensue. So the young man may well be infecting girls around Pretoria. This is scary. This is why we parents of teens in southern Africa worry about their sex lives.
Two years ago, at the Women and AIDS Summit in Nairobi, I interviewed one of the leading researchers on microbicides (a vaginal gel to kill the virus).
She said that she had started the research 20 years ago thinking her pre-teen daughter would benefit. Her daughter is now married and a mother. The researcher now dreams of developing a microbicide to protect her grandchild.
We were on the same wavelength: two mothers wishing the young could enjoy sex without the shadow of AIDS.
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