It is called stigma, isn’t it? You know, when people shun someone who is positive. And stigma is wrong, right? We all know that.
On a big billboard near our school, it says in big letters: A FRIEND WITH AIDS IS STILL A FRIEND. I saw a TV advert once. A whole bunch of cool teenagers were gathered round this girl who was positive, and they were all smiling and friendly; the girl as well.
But the real world is different.
Mama said, “We will keep quiet, Kesha. It is no one’s business. We will say your father has a job on the mines.”
But Mama needed to share her burden with someone. She chose her close friend, Mma Molefe.
“Oh my dear! I am so sorry to hear!” said Mma Molefe. “You look so well. No-one will guess.”
Next time Mma Molefe visited, she brought her own mug for tea. She stood over the kettle to check it boiled properly. Then she visited less and less. Now she only phones.
“Oh my dear! How are you? I am just so busy! Maybe next week.”
Maybe she is the one who spread the story. Or maybe it was someone from the clinic. But soon everyone knew.
When I took Mama to the shops, people kept their distance and whispered and stared. The shop assistant waited till Mama put the money down on the counter. Even then, the assistant looked worried when she picked the money up. When we left, the assistant was rubbing her hands on a wet cloth.
Children play clapping games outside our fence. Clapping with three fingers – for the three letters of the disease, I suppose.
Or do I imagine these things? Am I just paranoid? That is the trouble with stigma. It is a hundred small actions that end before you are sure they happened. A hundred expressions on people’s faces, which they quickly hide. But these all add up and add up.
Mama stopped going to work. Then she stopped going anywhere, long before she was really sick.
“Inside the house, Kesha, is only place I feel safe and free.” It made me so angry. I wanted to smash people’s faces in. I wanted to make them hurt, the way Mama was hurting.
Now her only visitor is Sister Moloi. The Sister comes in her dark uniform, carrying packets of latex gloves.
“Come, Mma Dube, let us get you washed.” She slaps on the latex gloves before she touches my mother.
For myself, I keep my distance at school. I am always alone. I don’t make friends or speak to other learners. Then they have no chance to turn away. This way I don’t have to worry about stigma, real or imagined.
Kedia Ndwape walks up to me sometimes. She says, “Kesha Dube, you must write an article for us. Please?” Kedia is the editor of the school newspaper. But I tell her I am too busy and turn away.
Sometimes I stand beside the boundary fence and look at the guys playing soccer, the girls chatting and laughing. And I wonder: who else has trouble at home like mine? There are others, surely?
But what our neighbour Mr Lekoko did – well, that was real. That I didn’t imagine. I was not being paranoid.
What do you think? Is Kesha doing the right thing, keeping away from his peers at school?