Life is Gentle
Zipho Sithandathu paid a high price for his carefree adolescence, but his optimism and determination has provided him with hope for his future.
Zipho (22) was born in Malizole in Lusikisiki in the Eastern Cape.
“I grew up with my mom, dad, two sisters – one older than me and the other younger than me, as well as my two older brothers. The place where we grew up was safe for children. There was no need to be afraid when you were going around. It was a big community that wasn’t that rural, because if I was going to town it would take 15 minutes if I was walking. We had good roads but the problem we struggled with was a lack of water at times. Sometimes the water would stop running from the taps and we would have to go and fetch water in the dams and rivers.”
His parents were both employed while Zipho was growing up. His mother was a dressmaker who worked from home and his father was a policeman.
“I had a close bond with my father, there were a lot of things I did with him. He had goats and we used to take the goats into the veld together. We also had a farming site where we would plant vegetables and we ran a spaza shop*.”
“I didn’t have a difficult childhood, we never went without food. My father encouraged us to bring friends home and not go out.”
However, life changed for the family when Zipho was just eight years old.
“I don’t remember much about that time, but I do remember that my father was sick for a couple of months. At the time I didn’t get the full story from my family about what the illness was all about because I was still small. Later I was told that my father developed TB. When he became sick, my dad had to be admitted to the hospital a few times and he stopped working. He was sick for a few months and then he died.”
“My family says that at that time, I would try and console my mother by saying that she shouldn’t cry because my father would come back to us and that even if he didn’t come back, he was in heaven. At his funeral, I didn’t feel like it was real. I didn’t feel the grieving process, I only realised my loss when I was much older.”
Zipho’s father had ensured that the family was taken care of after his death.
“When my father passed, my mother had to put more effort into ensuring that there was food and school uniforms for us. But my father had made sure we did not suffer because there were insurance policies in place. We didn’t feel the financial lack, though in the home we could feel that my father was missed.”
Life went on for Zipho and his family. When Zipho started Grade six, the allure of the Kwaito music scene captured young Zipho’s attention.
“I joined my older brother’s music group. At that time Kwaito was popular and we were performing Kwaito music. I used to perform with them at shows that they were booked for. I started socializing and I started changing. I didn’t see myself as an 11-year-old any longer, because I was hanging out with my brother and his friends, who were five or six years older than I was. If they were having a party I would be there. If they were chilling with the ladies, I would be there. I also began drinking a little bit each time. I didn’t understand that I was too young for what I was doing. The things I was being exposed to then were not what my peers were doing.”
While Zipho’s social life was ramping up, he still maintained his interest in sports and school.
“I used to play rugby with my school team and my grades were good at that time. Around my community and at my school I was popular, I had lots of friends. I was that kind of person who was loved. Most of the teachers knew my dad and my mum.”
Over time, the music group that Zipho belonged to was gaining recognition in the community. The group was often booked to entertain at weddings and performed at competitions.
“Most of the people at the school wanted to be close with me. The girls began saying they wanted to date me and at that age, you know, I was now a teenager, so I used to date four or five girls at the same time. My first sexual encounter was when I was 13.”
“Over the years I mastered the game. I was dating three girls at the same school, two of them were in my class. I felt like a leader in terms of having girlfriends. I didn’t have the knowledge or understanding of the consequences of having sex with different partners. I didn’t use protection because I didn’t think it was going to happen to me. If a condom was around I would use it, but if it wasn’t then I wouldn’t. I was relaxed about it.”
Since his focus was not on academics, Zipho’s grades began slipping.
“My grades started dropping in Grade 9 because we were deep into drinking and other things. I failed term two but most of the class failed because we were striking about the end of term outing we wanted to go on, which the school had said no to. Students had a meeting while the school also had a meeting over the issue and the students began vandalizing the school. The principal called the police. The strike lasted for a week. Students even wanted to burn the school down. I didn’t participate in the strike. After the strike, we wrote exams but we hadn’t practised for the exams because of the strike. Only six people passed that term!”
Luckily Zipho passed the year, but another issue began to bother him around the time. He began noticing that his state of health was declining.
“It started with a rash on my body. Then I developed a wound on my upper foot that took three months to heal and I didn’t know how it had happened. I couldn't wear school shoes - my mom had to buy me slippers. I went to the doctor and he gave me a cream and some pills to drink. He didn’t say what it was. That year, I had a dry cough that lasted almost the whole year. I used to get a fever that came and went. But I still attended school. I didn’t think much about it but what bothered me was that my fever was recurring. I just accepted it and didn’t have it checked out. I was still seeing my girlfriends at that time.”
Zipho started a new school in Grade 10. “At that school, I had a girlfriend in Grade 12 while I was in Grade 10. I still had that thing of mine where I thought that I was older than I was. At that time, I was using protection in my intimate relationships most of the time. That year I still had that dry cough and fever. But I still didn’t think to check myself out. I didn’t take it seriously, I didn’t think of it as a serious illness.”
However, things were not smooth sailing at the new school.
“I failed in grade 10 because of another strike at the school which was led by the kids in Grade 12. They were complaining about the lack of teachers at the school. There were no math teachers. The strike resulted in the school closing for a few weeks. The kids wanted to burn the principal’s car. The strike started before the final exams of that year. The Grade 11’s were participating in the strike as well as some Grade 10’s. Less than 10 people passed that year. I thought the high failure rate was a reaction from the school with regards to the strike. The year before, there had also been a strike at the school that led to too many students having to repeat the year. It felt like it was the norm.”
The school was far away from Zipho’s home so he stayed in a flat on his own which was situated near to the school. There were other learners who were also renting accommodation close to the school.
“When I repeated Grade 10, that’s when I became even more sexually active because I was living alone. I didn’t have that fear that relatives were going to see me. There was another girl also renting and we would stay together for a week. I started having many partners. I started noticing then, that my eyes were becoming painful. I had red eyes and I started having back pain. I was sweating at night and having headaches. There were times I couldn’t go to school because of the fever.”
“After noticing that my state of health was getting worse and that my fever was not going away, and it had been recurring for a few years, I made the decision to get myself checked out. I thought that I should go to the clinic and have all the tests that needed to be done. What I had in mind was that when I was young, I had TB and I was in hospital for treatment. I spent close to a month in a children's hospital. So, when I started getting sick, I thought maybe it’s TB that was affecting me again.”
One weekend after returning home to visit, Zipho told his mother that he wanted to visit the clinic. His mother suggested that Zipho’s sister accompany him. Zipho had a number of tests done including testing for TB, STI’s and HIV.
“The results came the same day - the counsellor told me that I was HIV positive. In the moments that followed, I couldn’t recall everything the counsellor said. My mind was not there at the time. I was thinking, ‘Will I survive? Will I be able to have the life that I had? Who infected me?’ I had all those thoughts running through my head. The main thought that kept overcoming those thoughts, and I don’t know where it came from, was ‘I will try to cope with this and motivate others to not go on the path that I did’.”
“Then the counsellor asked me about treatment and I said I wanted to start treatment immediately. I wanted to be healthy as much as possible. I didn’t have suicidal thoughts. I told myself that I needed to be strong.”
It took him some hours to process the news of his status fully. That evening he sat his mother and sister down.
“That night I called my mother and sister and I told them the results. They told me that I can live a healthy life because there are people that they know who are HIV positive and healthy. I felt supported, it was a huge relief. They were the first people to know. After I talked to them and began taking the treatment I disclosed my status to the whole family. I thought it would be hard to drink my meds and keep things secret, so I told the whole family so that I could get the support that I needed.”
“When I disclosed to the family at home they were shocked but they didn’t really show it. They motivated me by saying that I will overcome this and that they are going to support me. At school, I disclosed my status to my teacher in order for me to fetch my pills during the week. I had to disclose to the school because I would miss class since there could be long queues at the clinic. But the clinic soon implemented a system that allowed those of us at school to just collect the meds immediately without having to stand in a queue and then go to school.”
“I understood that if I stayed on treatment, ate healthy food and minimised things that would jeopardize my health, then I would be able to live a long, healthy life. However, when I started the meds it was not easy because they made me very tired. The side effects were strong the first month. After taking the meds, by 8 pm, I would just fall asleep. I would experience other side effects like bad dreams and sweating.”
“I had to change many of the things that I had been doing. Since then I have never had sex without a condom. I was told to minimize my smoking and drinking because it could have an impact on my treatment. Most people around me noticed the changes. Some of the guys noticed that I was not smoking and they asked me why. I just said ‘I’m done smoking’. At the time, the only guys that I told my HIV status to, were two old friends and another three friends who lived near me in the flat that I had been staying in. They supported me and some of them also changed their lifestyle and minimised the dating thing.”
When Zipho passed Grade 10 he wanted to go to initiation school*.
“In that year I wanted to go to initiation school but my older brother didn’t approve and neither did my mother because they said that I was still young. I needed to be 18. All of my friends were going so I felt that pressure. I felt alone not being a man among men. I thought I can’t live in a place where my friends are going to the bush and I'm left behind. I said to my family that if they didn’t allow me to go, then I just want to leave the community. Then my brother said I should come to Cape Town where he was living and working.”
“I decided to move to Cape Town because the clinics and services are also better here. I lived with my brother and his girlfriend and her children in Khayelitsha. His girlfriend was an HIV activist who lives openly with HIV. She and my brother encouraged me to participate in events by MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières) where he worked and the TAC (Treatment Action Campaign) which is where she worked. They encouraged me to join the clinical clubs so that I could get my meds easier and join the health and wellness programmes. It helped me a lot, it boosted my self-confidence again. If I didn’t join, maybe I wouldn’t be able to disclose my status so openly. They empowered me to be where I'm now and to be able to speak about my status.”
Zipho did his Grade 11 and 12 in Cape Town.
“I had to adapt to the new environment. I stayed indoors since I didn’t know many people. That helped me since I was no longer socializing, it helped me figure out how to move ahead.”
“I went to initiation school in December. I survived the process and I took my meds while there. That was a highlight for me. I passed my Grade 12 and I was more active in the programmes run by NGO’s. I was the chairperson of the TAC branch in my community and I was gaining more confidence and attending more training that was provided. I still date, but I am more committed and I always disclose my status upfront. It is incredible how liberating that is. Post-high school, I became a stronger activist and I also started learning to code to follow a career in the tech industry.”
Zipho reflected on his journey and the life lessons he has learnt.
“Some of the things that I've learnt on this journey is that you have to always think of the consequences of your actions. You should not do things just for the sake of the moment and without thinking about the outcomes. If you carry on living like this, one day it might be too late to do a U-turn.”
“But I have also learnt that often if you learn your lesson, life is gentle enough to give you a second chance. The second chance might require hard work, commitment and your willingness to be vulnerable and get support… but it is worth it! So, make sure you don’t mess up this second chance.”
Zipho is a Life Choices Academy Student
*spaza shops – are small grocery shops in the location, normally linked to a household.
*initiation school - are cultural schools which young males and females attend to be taught the values, principles, hardships, respect and accountability within their cultural tradition. In Xhosa culture, males go to the mountain to get circumcised and learn their cultural traditions.