Sibonelo Handsome Mtheku is a charismatic young man from Amahlongwa, a rural village in South Africa, and yet his singing and drama talents would not be out of place on the West End stage.
Fortunately for the South African Red Cross, since 2005, the 20-year-old has been putting his passion for entertaining to good use through the organisation’s HIV peer education programme.
“I love using drama and music to talk about HIV,” Sibonelo says. “It works because we’re all young volunteers and so we’re able to go into schools and discuss things, adolescent stuff that affects us, things we never talk to our parents about.”
In a country where one in five adults is infected, South Africa has the world’s largest caseload of people living with HIV. Sibonelo lives in KwaZulu-Natal province, which is the worst-affected region in the country and where the British Red Cross is supporting an HIV programme.
Despite the enormous challenges, the South African Red Cross is having a big impact. It combines care and treatment with anti-stigma messages and prevention activities.
In the long term, changing the attitudes and practices of the younger generations is key to addressing the sometimes overwhelming statistics associated with HIV. This is why Sibonelo, and others like him, have such a vital role to play.
Sibonelo’s father left when he was young and he lives with his mother. Like most people in KwaZulu-Natal, he has his own story about how HIV has affected his life. “My sister died of HIV in 2003,” Sibonelo says. “There are a lot of things that have happened to my family and it’s so painful.
“It’s a big family and I’m the last born. It’s not easy to tell my elders what to do because they’re like, 'you’re just young'. They think I just go with the Red Cross because I love to talk and love to be in public, they just don’t know what’s inside me and the passion that I have for doing this work.
“My mother is not well, she’s got sores in her mouth and sometimes all over her body and her bones are painful. But she never wants to talk about it. She says she wants me to reach my dreams and not worry about her.
“Whenever I talk to her, she just cries. I tell her about the HIV programme and about the symptoms and treatment. Maybe she knows she has HIV but it’s not my place to tell her that, she’s the one who has to tell me. But I keep taking care of her whenever she’s ill.”
As well as singing and drama, Sibonelo and his fellow volunteers use football as a means of reaching out to young people in their community.
“In this area, teenage pregnancy and drugs are a big issue. And with this definitely comes a high rate of HIV, they’re linked together so we always talk about these things.
“This year, with the World Cup coming here there is a risk of increasing HIV rates. There will be more sex workers, more people partying and taking drugs. So we are getting prepared with more education and training about safe sex.”