How sad, and outraged, we readers feel for brave Ritlatla as she suffers one emotional blow after another, in Mine to Tell! To make it worse, the cruelty comes from some of her fellow athletes; people who she has known, had fun with, competed on the track with, for years.
It’s tempting to say her team-mates ‘ought to know better’. HIV and Aids has been around for more than 50 years. Yet, to this day, it comes with a heavy burden of stigma and shame, and is surrounded by ignorance. Ritlatla’s community is not different. Many – if not most – people do not ‘know better’.
And the story shows us exactly why the stigma is so powerful: ‘“Slut,” a girl hisses at me across the metres of space between us.’
HIV is mostly transmitted by sex, and for many societies and communities, sex is still a taboo subject. It is not to be talked about openly – especially not by girls and young women. Girls who have sex are ‘sluts’. (Guys, well, they can talk about anything and do anything!) If sex is still taboo, no wonder there’s a strong stigma around a serious illness most often passed on by sex.
HIV is no longer a frightening ‘death sentence’. It’s a chronic disease – if you take the correct medicines. Ritlatla contracted HIV from her mother at birth. Yet despite having HIV her whole life she’s healthy enough to be a top athlete. She can live a long life.
However, this life-saving advance in scientific medicine has not done much to lessen the stigma. And, millions are still contracting this illness. Very worryingly, by far most of these people are teenage girls and young women, with their whole lives ahead of them. Dreams Thina Abantu Abasha say ” … young African women and adolescent girls are especially vulnerable to HIV infection, making up 74% of new HIV infections among all adolescents living in sub-Saharan Africa.”
This is why it’s so important for us to keep educating ourselves about HIV. We must talk about it more openly, so that girls can more confidently protect themselves. Or, if they do have HIV, they can be informed and still live full lives, free of shame. (And a ‘full life’ includes a social and sexual life, btw!)
The characters Mahlatse and Dzanga represent ‘HIV ignorance’. They think just being near an HIV-positive person is a health risk. And as for getting into a ‘relationship’!? After Mahlatse and Ritlatla have been face to face, close, he panics and tries to wash ‘AIDS germs’ off his face. He feels attacked:
‘He spins round, and the wild fear twisting his face pierces my heart.
“You—” he splutters. “How come you—I can’t believe you’ve done this to me, Ritlatla,” … “I suppose you’re ashamed, and that’s why you didn’t tell me from the beginning.”’
Fear often comes from ignorance. Ritlatla understands this. She tries to explain to Mahlatse, but he can’t even listen he is so shocked and afraid, and disgusted, saying: “You’re diseased,” as if she is somehow filthy.
Look what Ritlatla tried: “I explained all the usual stuff to him—about how my viral load is undetectable, but even so, I still said that I’d never take risks. Good hygiene and diet, taking my meds, and…um, safe sex, when the time arrives.”
We should all be aware that, outside of this fiction, our real lives are full of HIV-positive people, going about their daily lives! So feeling fearful is, actually, a bit ridiculous.
In contrast, look at our hero, Fumani’s, first reaction to news of her status. It’s the one we should all strive for:
‘“Ritlatla, stop.” Fumani’s voice is urgent. “I want…I want to understand.”’
Not only this, Fumani also assures her he will never judge her. And later, he trusts that she knows how to be intimate with someone, and yet safe. Fumani is an emotionally literate, informed person, thoughtful and caring.
Let’s summarise what modern science and medicine has found out about HIV.
• HIV and Aids has three stages: 1. Acute (first) infection. 2. Chronic (ongoing) infection. 3. Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Without correct medicine, the disease advances through the stages, until death. That’s when the virus has harmed the immune system so much it can’t fight off any other illnesses.
• Taking Anti Retroviral Therapy (ART) or HIV medicine can enable you to live a long time, often in good health.
• A main thing Anti Retroviral Therapy (HIV medicine) does is reduce a person’s ‘viral load’. This is how much virus is in the body. It can be lowered so much that it cannot be detected in tests. This is the case with Ritlatla.
• People like Ritlatla, who have an undetectable viral load, cannot transmit HIV to their partner through sex.
What, however, is the main theme of the story? It is that, taking what is shown about HIV and stigma, revealing your HIV status is a private, personal choice. It can change your life – in this case for the worse. The story reveals how much Ritlatla has had to think about this choice over the years, and how hurtful Mahlatse’s betrayal is.
“… usually when I’m alone and mostly at night, this hurt creeps in when I remember what Mahlatse has done. It doesn’t matter how upset he was hearing that I have HIV. That one fact – it’s mine to tell, to those people who need to know, and certainly not to be shared with random people like Dzanga.”
An HIV- positive person needs the support of friends and family (like loving Gogo and Auntie Hlomisa) to reveal their status. They don’t know what the backlash may be. The story’s message to an HIV negative reader is that it’s not ours to tell if we know or suspect someone of being HIV positive. And for an HIV positive reader the message is in this quote: “As long as I’m not a danger to anyone, my health is my business.”
There’s another reason an HIV positive person needs support: it is challenging living with a chronic illness. Look how Ritlatla’s aunt helps her fight, be brave:
‘“That’s defeatist talk.”
Auntie has never spared me when she thinks I’m being feeble or self-pitying, like the times I’ve been miserable when the clinic has changed my meds, because it takes a while for my system to settle down after a change.’
Her experience at the hands of vicious Dzanga and Mahlatse leads Ritlatla to give up on love, to believe: ” … I can’t risk letting another guy into my life. Ever.”
How tragic to think that some young women are missing out on the excitement and joy of intimate relationships because of other people’s fear and ignorance about HIV. Let’s get talking, lets get sharing, let’s get informed and open about HIV.
And then, like Ritlatla, girls can fall in love with guys like Fumani, who promise:
‘“You bet I’m going to be around.”
His enthusiasm makes me feel so light I could float away, like I’m filled with thousands of air bubbles.’
Maybe her HIV status being public has not changed Ritlatla’s life for the worse, after all …
You can read more about HIV and AIDS and prevention and treatment here
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