If you’ve never been affected by HIV or TB it’s hard to imagine the stigma, isolation and desolation experienced by many people living with these diseases.
In South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province the situation is compounded for thousands of people living in remote rural areas, where treatment and support is hard to come by.
Florence Mhlongo, 75, is a widow who lives in Manyameni community, where she looks after her six grandchildren. “All seven of my children have died,” Florence explains. “My oldest daughter was shot and two daughters died of AIDS. One child was killed by a snakebite and another one from TB. Two children got sick and died as toddlers.”
Struggling to cope
Looking after her grandchildren alone is particularly challenging for Florence, not only because her pension does not go far, but because her health is very poor and she no longer has the use of her legs.
“Previously I had TB,” Florence says. “A Red Cross volunteer helped me get to the clinic and get treatment which cured me. But then I became diabetic and ended up in the wheelchair because my bones are so painful.
“My leg is septic from a fall and it’s not getting better. I have been tested for HIV although I have not been well enough to get back to the clinic for the results.
“My 14-year-old grandson is now being treated for TB and my 11-year-old has HIV, he is receiving antiretroviral therapy, which means hopefully he will not get very sick.”
Each day when the children go to school, Florence literally drags herself out of bed and sits on a cushion on the floor where she can cook at the stove.
“I wake up between 4-5 am and prepare breakfast for the kids,” Florence explains. “After that I prepare the dinner. Before the kids leave for school they make sure everything is close by so I can reach it. The school is free but the Red Cross has helped by providing school uniforms.
“Occasionally my neighbours will come and visit, bring food, sit and drink tea. But most of my relatives are sick like me, two of my sisters are also diabetic, one had her leg amputated, but she just passed away.”
Red Cross support
“I know a lot of people have died of AIDS in this community. But it has been years since I left the house, apart from to sit in the yard in the wheelchair, so I do not know how things are any more,” Florence says.
“My health is not good and it does frighten me. Mostly I’m frightened of passing away and there being no one to look after the children.
“Things are not so bad, except when I don’t have food or when I’m in pain but the Red Cross volunteer takes good care of me. She is my friend and without her I couldn’t cope. She’s the one who collects my pension money and buys food for us. And when I have nothing left at the end of the month, the children will go and tell her and she will send food back with them.”