For nine years, Nomusa Mpanza lived with a secret. In 1993, her newborn daughter was diagnosed with AIDS, and the South African woman realized that she herself was HIV-positive. Yet it was only after her daughter died of the disease this year that she publicly acknowledged her own status. It was a brave step in a country that ostracizes, stigmatizes, and even physically attacks those with AIDS. But she was not content to merely live with HIV.
Since May, Mpanza has been part of a 21-member choir of HIV-positive men and women from South Africa touring the United States. They are trying to raise money for costly antiviral drugs, and to help end the fear and animosity felt toward AIDS patients in South Africa, where one in nine people are infected with HIV. The US tour is sponsored by the Church World Service, a New York agency that provides humanitarian aid in developing countries.
"It makes me feel great," Mpanza, 29, said Sunday evening before the group performed at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, Pa. "It helps us show other people that there's life after HIV." The 18 women and three men are outpatients at the Sinikithemba center in Durban, which provides pre- and post-diagnosis counseling, medical treatment, and the opportunity to earn a living through traditional Zulu beadwork. The center sees about 1,800 people a month, social worker Nonnhlanhla Mhlongo said.
Mpanza and Bhekani Mbemela, another choir member, said they are battling both ignorance and a government that has been criticized for its intransigence toward the disease. "I don't think our country is ready yet to deal with the situation," said Mbemela, 32. He was diagnosed with HIV in 1998, he said, three years after he first suspected he was infected. "Being HIV-positive doesn't mean death," he said. Mpanza said she dreams of the day when she can finish her education, get a job as a social worker, and build a home for herself and her four-year-old daughter.
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