HIV, unemployment and poverty have caused much suffering in the Ufafa Valley. ARV treatment is free, but lack of money for transportation to get the ARVs is often a problem in South Africa. Photo by Casey Miller.

“It’s all we have left. I know you’re hungry, but phutu’s all there is until next week,” I say to Sibonelo without making eye contact with him, scooping the last of the phutu from the hot pan atop the wood burning camping-style stove.

If only I could make it through a single month without having to disappoint Sibo and his brothers, my heart could possibly heal. Each time I see the sadness in his eyes and hear the hunger in his voice, the shame of not being able to provide enough seeps in and my heart breaks a little more.

I guess I was naïve to believe that once I was married my life would be easier — as if the 11 cows my parents gave his family would somehow give me the security I’ve never known. That’s youth — blinded to reality — hopeful for a future that could never be.

I can only thank the heavens that all of my babies are boys, and that they’ll never have to feel what it’s like to belong to someone else. Rather they have the privilege to feel the opposite: power, freedom, ownership. I can’t begin to imagine how I’d feel had I been a boy, but that was not my fate, and so I’ll never know.

Instead, here I am, telling my babies I can’t satisfy their hunger until next week, when our government check gets here yet won’t last long enough to feed all of us an entire month. And now the nurses at the clinic tell me if I don’t take these pills everyday — ARV something — then I’ll die as will my three-week old baby. Sometimes I’m tempted to just not take them, at least then it would be quicker, and it wouldn’t look like a suicide. Then I see one of their faces and remember that my life at least provided them with theirs and that they need me. I guess that’s worth something.

— Thembile, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

Thembile’s story mirrors hundreds of women’s of the Ufafa Valley in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, an area with a very high prevalence of HIV infection among the adult population. No amount of reading and research could have prepared me for the depth of experience that South Africa bestowed upon me. LearnToLive (LTL), a New Orleans-based humanitarian organization, has been doing work in Southeast Asia since 2012, but this was our first time in South Africa and partnering with an established South African NGO, Woza Moya.

The view of the Ufafa Valley from Thembile's home. Photo by Casey Miller.
The view of the Ufafa Valley from Thembile’s home. Photo by Casey Miller.

Having been to rural areas of Indonesia and Lao prepared us to expect the unexpected and taught me to be observant, adaptable and inquisitive, but those skills couldn’t prepare me for the complexity of the situation we were there to address in the Ufafa Valley. Our original role was to help Woza Moya “with the development of protocols for the health clinics, with a focus on compliance with HIV medications as well as multi resistant TB.” Sounds easy enough, until we’re able to see and empathize with the day-to-day struggles in the lives of the people we were there to serve: 85% unemployment, high HIV rate among adults, no running water or refrigeration, little access to transportation, and on-and-on.

As we truly got to know our colleagues at Woza Moya as well as the beautiful people of the Ufafa Valley it became apparent that in order for LTL to be effective, we were going to have to adapt to the culture we were immersed in, Zulu, as well as address the taboo issues that plague the area. Like anywhere, there are cultural complications that must be navigated carefully for any progress to be made, but I don’t think we were prepared for what women in Zulu society endure, at least in this particular valley. How are we supposed to try to impact the extremely high HIV rate among adults when women are literally property and therefore have no right to tell a man to put on a condom? I don’t think there’s one simple answer to this question, as with anything worth trying to figure out. It’s so much deeper and more complicated than kneejerk judgments by outsiders’ eyes and frames of reference.

Thembile walks from the main house to the kitchen. Photo by Casey Miller.
Thembile walks from the main house to the kitchen. Photo by Casey Miller.

All I know is that never before have I felt so fortunate to be born a woman in a free society, as well as so privileged to have been welcome in to these women’s homes and trusted with information that is more often than not withheld from close friends and family due to the stigma surrounding HIV. And for that reason, from the day our work ended and until I’m no longer able to do so, I knew I had a responsibility to use my freedom to fight for others without the same luxury.

Within 24 hours of our work being finished, my fighting spirit was of course tested to see if I knew the gravity and power of my freedom.

Thembile's 3-week-old baby is held by our translator, Thimbe. Photo by Casey Miller.
Thembile’s 3-week-old baby is held by our translator, Thimbe. Photo by Casey Miller.

Without revealing too many details, a personal matter of the heart punched me in the gut and brought me back down to earth. So it was my turn to use my new appreciation for what it means to be free on my self, and nobody else. It forced me to face some of the same circumstances that so many women aren’t lucky enough to be able to get themselves out of, and there I was, fortunate enough to say what I needed to say and fly away from two toxic relationships in the comfort of a magical country far away from the scene of the crime.

And so began the end of the beginning and the transition in to trusting the power that I, as a free woman, possess and learning to use that power for others who may not ever know how freedom feels.

The quote by Nelson Mandela that greets visitors upon arrival to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg says it best: “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”   

*Top image: HIV, unemployment and poverty have caused much suffering in the Ufafa Valley. Antiretroviral treatment is free, but lack of money for transportation to get the ARVs is often a problem in South Africa. Photo by Casey Miller. 

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Casey Miller

Casey Miller works as a nutritionist and cook in San Antonio and does health-related work abroad with the nonprofit LearnToLive. She writes fiction and poems for fun and finds much of her inspiration in...