Gogo Lina Nzima, 67*, lost her daughter to an Aids-related illness in 2000. The grieving woman was then living alone in a shack inUmlazi’s J-Section.
As she knocked on the doors of family and friends to scrape together money for the burial, she felt the burning gaze of the neighbours on her.
Gogo Nzima knew they were whispering about what had killed her daughter.
Then her three-year-old granddaughter, Phumzile* started getting sick.
The little girl and her brother had been taken in by their grandmother.
Although the older boy was healthy, the girl had been weak and sickly since her birth, when she had to be kept on a ventilator for a week.
By her third birthday, it was clear the girl’s growth was stunted, and she walked unsteadily on an emaciated frame.
Her severe diarrhoea and persistent cough should have been signs, and she still doesn’t know why, but Gogo Nzima was afraid to get Phumzile tested at the local clinic.
She eventually did, and was told the little girl was HIV-positive like her mother, and would soon die.
The grief-stricken grandmother put the child on her back and walked to Prince Mshiyeni Hospital, where she was first told by nurses about anti-retroviral treatment (ART).
She was given a cocktail of anti-retroviral syrup.
Although she gratefully accepted anything she believed would save her granddaughter, Gogo Nzima noticed the child’s condition seemed to be worsening. Shingles and boils broke out on the girl’s skin.
The diarrhoea returned.
The child’s gross motor skills regressed: from having walked for the previous two years, Phumzile started crawling again like a child less than half her age.
Her voice choking, the grandmother remembers how she had to take the child out of the crèche because the staff refused to touch her and even her books.
They would push Phumzile away when she came too close to the teacher’s table.
“I really thought she was going to die,” says her grandmother.
A few months later, the side effects of the drug began wearing off, and Phumzile’s condition improved.
The nurses at the hospital told her there were tablets the girl could take instead of the syrup. Soon her skin cleared and her appetite returned.
Ten years later, the toddler who was not expected to survive is a healthy, mischievous teenager who plays outside until late with her friends, much to her grandmother’s consternation.
Her bedroom in their Mayville, Durban home is adorned with posters of one or other pop star. Her schoolbooks and dictionaries are piled neatly on a bedside table.
Gogo Nzima moved to Mayville six years ago to be closer to the Ithemba Labantu Clinic, where Phumzile receives her medication, but also to escape the stares and cruel words of the people who watched her bury her daughter, she says.
The private clinic, funded by the US-based Aids Healthcare Foundation, has been operating since 2002 and is accredited by the Department of Health to provide testing, HIV counselling, ART and treatment education classes.
Unlike the wait at government facilities, patients coming to Ithemba Labantu are put onto treatment within two weeks of being tested.
The reactions of people to the girl’s status still worries Phumzile’s grandmother.
Earlier this year the girl featured in an insert of the SABC 1 current affairs show, Cutting Edge.
Excited at having appeared on television, she invited her friends home and put on a DVD copy of the episode.
Her friends were shocked, asking her: “Are you HIV-positive?”
Phumzile, who knows about her condition, was afraid to answer, but eventually she said yes, she was HIV-positive.
But the children didn’t reject or shun Phumzile like the staff did years ago at the Umlazi crèche.
It’s a sign, perhaps, says her grandmother, of the times: when HIV is accepted and those infected are treated as “normal”.
Phumzile and her grandmother know she will have to take the drugs for the rest of her life.
When asked where she thinks her granddaughter would be now if she had not heard of the medication, Gogo Nzima says: “She would be dead by now. I know, she would be dead.”
* Not their real names.