This summer I traveled to Durban, South Africa for a study abroad program sponsored by my School of Social
Work (Grand Valley State University). Durban is a large city in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, where three out of five adults
have HIV or AIDS. The program included a service-learning component at a local HIV/AIDS center, Sinikthemba.
Sinikthemba is a Zulu word, which means “We Give Hope.” The services provided by Sinikthemba
included testing, limited medical treatment, nutritional counseling, and support groups. I shadowed a social worker, Maud,
as she provided pre- and post-test counseling, worked with the support group, and went to hospital ward to provide testing
to people who were sick.
The majority of the clients at Sinikthemba are HIV-positive women and their children. Some of the clients
are in their tenth year of living with HIV; others have known their status for a few months. A husband or a boyfriend infected
many of these women. Many of them passed the virus onto their children. The loss and fear that consumes their life is impossible
to define. They have lost the partners and children with whom they shared the virus. Yet the hope that fills their lives is
overwhelming. Although anti-retroviral drugs, which help people in the U.S., live healthy lives for fifteen or twenty years,
are not available to these women they all hope that they will see the day when the virus is overcome. The women of Sinikthemba
live in poverty that is unknown in the United States, but they are the most generous and welcoming women I have ever met.
We were strangers whose lives shared little, but the women always wanted to know if I had enough food, offering to take me
home for tea. While their lives are filled with fear, their hearts are filled with hope and generosity.
My time in South Africa affected me in ways I still have not seen. One thing I do know is that I will be
a better social worker because of my time there. I met two effective social workers at the clinic. The first, Mrs. Mhlongo
is the supervisor at Sinikthemba. In support group she is on the floor right next to the women. She refuses to let the virus
be the only thing in her clients’ lives. Mhlongo is frequently heard shouting, “Are we sick? There are no sick
people in this room! If you are sick, go see the doctor, she’s right over there. Then you come back here, where there
are no sick people!” The women loved this and it raised their spirits every time. Mhlongo also has an attention to detail
that is amazing, given all that she oversees. One day a former client was in the hospital ward with no ride home. Although
the woman was not currently a client, Mhlongo still called to make sure the woman found a ride. That’s just the way
she thinks of her women.
The social worker I shadowed, Maud, had a very different style from Mhlongo, yet just as effective. During
pre-test counseling, we ask questions that are very controversial still in South Africa. Maud handled these conversations
with ease, always interested yet never prying. At one point she needed to do a pre-test for a six-year-old girl. Maud sat
the girl on her lap and asked her questions about what happened to her, never pressing too hard, yet always finding out what
she needed to work with the child.
My trip to South Africa was the best experience I have ever had. I will never forget the women of Sinikthemba.
One day I hope to return to Durban and fight the virus with all the skills of a dedicated social worker and responsible citizen
of our world.