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GlobalPost's John Donnelly and a team of reporters investigate what experts are calling a 'turning point' in the global fight to reduce HIV infection rates. Successes in southern African countries have produced valuable lessons on effective approaches to fight AIDS, lessons that need to be learned in US cities where infection rates remain persistently high — particularly among African-Americans. Meanwhile a political confrontation looms in Washington over critical funding which could threaten gains already made.

Nozi Samela
Nozi Samela at the offices of mothers2mothers in Cape Town, South Africa. (Per-Anders Pettersson/GlobalPost)

From New York to Cape Town, AIDS fight personal for mentoring mothers

A widow and a grieving mother half a world away fight a common foe.

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — There are tens of thousands of stories about the rapid expansion of community health workers across the world. Here are two of them, one in Africa and one in America.


When Nozi Samela arrived one day recently in the Cape Town mothers2mothers office, she walked with purpose through the hallways.

She had only recently become a communications associate for the organization, which works with HIV-positive mothers and sets up programs to prevent transmission from mother to child.

Samela was stylish in her black flats and salmon-colored trench coat, with tote bag in hand. Late for a visit outside the office, she walked outside and apologized to her driver with a coy, soft-eyed smile — one that surely has gotten her out of many a situation in her lifetime.

“If I do say so, I am a good mother.”
~Nozi Samela

“Something is different about you,” the driver said.

“Perhaps it’s my hair,” she responded with a straight face.

“No, you’re glowing,” he says. He was not going to let her get off of the hook that easily. “Are you with child?”

She didn’t respond.

Moments later, that same gentle smile swept across her face. “How did you know?” she asked.

“I know a pregnant woman when I see one,” he replied.

They both laughed and made their way to the hospital.

Samela was not always the same hardworking businesswoman and glowing mother-to-be she is now.

Born in the Eastern Cape to a single mother, Samela was orphaned at age seven and left to fend for herself with her older and younger brother. The three young children relocated to Cape Town where they grew up moving between the townships of Khayelitsha and Philippi. Their aunt and uncle struggled to care for the young children.

The first in her family to graduate high school, Samela had plans to attend university. When it came time to enroll, she found out that her aunt had spent the money she had saved for enrollment. Instead of telling her other family members what happened, she lied, telling them that she had not gotten in. She took a job as a gas station attendant to make ends meet and help contribute to the family income.

When she was 20, Samela became pregnant; that is when she found out that she was HIV-positive and when she first discovered mothers2mothers.

At the mothers2mothers office in her local clinic, Samela began visiting support groups and was able to build up the confidence, with encouragement of her mentor mother, to disclose her positive status to her aunt and cousins.

More from GlobalPost: Cape Town's HIV outreach workers see uncertain future

“If there was anything mean that people were saying, they never said it to my face,” she remembered after disclosing. “Sometimes they would gather and chat behind my back, but if you don’t have the courage to say things to my face, then it is not me worth worrying about it.”

Nine months later, while continuing to attend support groups and educational sessions at the mothers2mothers clinic, Samela gave birth to a healthy, HIV-negative baby boy. Shortly after that, she became a mothers2mothers mentor mother in the same clinic that once helped her.

Nozi Samela.
(Per-Anders Pettersson/GlobalPost)

Samela only worked one day a week, but was determined to gain more hours.

“I told myself my son is never going to go hungry or go through what I went through,” she said.

Soon enough, Samela was working four days a week and with guidance from the organization opened her first bank account and was able to buy a shack in Khayelitsha to call her own.

At home, Samela began using the skills she gained by working with mothers2mothers to help care for her cousin who was slowly dying from AIDS. She nursed her until her death and helped care for her children.

Being a mentor mother was something Samela embraced. She even became an ambassador for the organization and traveled to the United States to speak out about her own story as an HIV-positive mother.

One cold Saturday morning, things changed. Samela and her three-year-old son, Khanya, were watching the film Toy Story. That afternoon, Khanya asked to go outside and play with a friend. He never returned. After 30 minutes, Samela began to look for her son. Unable to find him, she recruited help from her family to search the township. Four hours later, Khanya was still nowhere to be found.

“A boy who had been outside said to me that there had been a young boy wearing dark clothes who had been hit by a car near the garage,” she remembered.

Samela went to the nearest hospital, which happened to be the one where she worked.

“Nobody would talk to me and tell me what happened.” she said. “Finally, they said ‘sit down.’ I knew what that meant.”

Khanya had been dead upon arrival.

“A few weeks later I hated the organization,” Samela said. “It was called mothers2mothers and I was no longer a mother.”