Marhoyi Zita

When Marhoyi Zita is not at work nursing patients with HIV in the rural Eastern Cape village of Hamburg you will find her at home tending to her cattle, sheep and goats. “When I was a girl, everyone in the rural areas produced their own food,” says the sprightly 74-year-old nurse.

She describes how every school holiday the children would look after the animals and work the fields. The only food items the community bought were sugar, coffee and tea. “Now there is this ever-mentioned poverty in the rural areas. We must go back to traditional subsistence farming. That is why even though I live in a modern house I will always keep cattle, sheep and goats,” Zita says. She describes herself as “a traditionalist who is also very progressive”. A clan elder of the local Mfengu people, she believes in taking the best from the traditional way of life and combining it with the best modern practices, such as the HIV and antiretroviral (ARV) treatment approach offered at the Umtha Welanga (rays of the sun) Treatment Centre in Hamburg, where she works for a few days each week.

“It is because we have not maintained a strong cultural identity and positive cultural practices such as the rite of passage from teenagehood to adulthood that we now have so much HIV and so many teenage pregnancies,” says Zita, explaining that this rite of passage teaches young men and women to respect each other.

In her youth youngsters were permitted to be sexually active from the age of 16, but the girls were taught to keep their thighs closed to avoid penetration, and the boys were taught to respect this. Any boy who broke this rule would bring disgrace to his family.

Zita witnessed the coming of HIV in the late 1980s and 1990s. She explains how it haunted her and how her community was blessed by the arrival of Dr Carol Baker, founder and director of the Keiskamma Trust, who came to live in Hamburg and initiated the use of ARVs long before the government became involved.

She does not believe the government is doing its work. “People were promised education but there are still so many children sitting in miserable classrooms or having their lessons under trees.”

She adds that the trend for people to wait for hand-outs is not the traditional African way. “We need to learn from the German people and the Jewish people today,” she says. “They keep their strong cultures and traditions alive and they are hardworking and clever, which is why they are so successful. This is the kind of influence we want here.”