Sixty-seven-year-old Hloniphani Sidingo gives a broad smile, while popping out through the gate of a clinic in her village, as she heads home clutching containers of anti-retroviral pills.
The first Bantu people to dwell in present-day Zimbabwe, the Khoisan, also known as the Bushmen or Basarwa, populate remote areas of Southern Africa, particularly Angola, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Here, the Khoisan community is found in Matabeleland North’s Tsholotsho district, where many like Sidingo are domiciled.
Other Khoisans live in Plumtree in this country’s Matabeleland South province.
Now, with the word spreading far and wide about Aids awareness, many Khoisans like Sidingo have joined the fight against the disease.
And thanks to the Zimbabwean government’s anti-retroviral initiative, she is still alive more than 16 years after she tested positive for HIV.
“I’m so happy. I’m happy I continue to receive my share of treatment pills from the government and this keeps me going,” Sidingo said.
“Aids killed my husband and my children — five of them.
“I’m not taking chances because I want to survive.
“My husband, back in the day, didn’t trust community health workers when they approached us urging us to embrace HIV and Aids tests and get treatment if we have the disease.
“Ntungwa, my husband, actually thought health workers were up to no good and avoided them, resulting even in our children, who also later died of Aids, doing like their father.”
Meanwhile, organisations catering for the welfare of the Khoisan say the dread and shame surrounding HIV and Aids is fading among members of the tribe.
“The Khoisan now understand the existence of the (Aids) virus and almost all, who are infected, are on ARVs,” Davy Ndlovu, programmes manager for Tsoro-O-Tso San, a development trust that aids Khoisan people in Zimbabwe, said.
But while success stories are there to be told about the ancient tribe’s strides in combatting HIV and Aids, a combination of poverty and ignorance has sometimes disrupted ARV treatment.
“As you might be aware, the San are a poor people and when the nursing staff here once told them not to take the medication on empty stomachs, this was interpreted in that when one had no food for that day, one would not take his or her medication.
“Due to this ignorance, a number of Khoisan people living with Aids have lost their lives,” Ndlovu said.
While the tribe now embraces ARV medication, they still face the burden of having to walk long distances to access treatment, according to Tsoro-O-Tso San.
“The other issue has to do with reviews, where people are expected to travel to the nearest hospital, which is about 15 to 20 kilometres away.
“When they fail to raise transport money, they just stay and miss the review,” Ndlovu said.
Despite such hurdles, for Khoisans living with HIV like Sidingo, fighting the disease has become top priority.
“I have learnt to adhere to taking my medication consistently. Many people in my community now understand the importance of getting tested for HIV,” she said.
Ndlovu said, like Sidingo, many Khoisans now live with HIV and Aids are trying to cope with the virus like everybody else, in a country where 1,2 million people are living with HIV and Aids, according to UNAIDS.
To Ndlovu, “they (the Khoisan) are no longer discriminated against in the Aids battle”.
Of the 2 500 Khoisan people domiciled in Zimbabwe, approximately 800 of them now live with HIV and Aids, about a third of the population, according to Tsoro-O-Tso San.
Meanwhile, the rush to get tested for HIV and Aids amongst Zimbabwe’s Khoisan comes at a time the tribe is accused of engaging in careless sex habits, exposing the tribe to the ravages of the virus.
“The biggest threat is that the San still practice casual sex with no protection at all.
“Sex among the San is a pastime to be enjoyed and you still find people sharing girlfriends – young and old do this,” Ndlovu said.
“Organisations like Medicine Sen Frontiers (MSF) have worked with the Khoisan tribe on issues related to HIV and AIDS.
“A number of the Khoisans, both male and female, the youth in particular, have been trained as peer HIV and Aids educators with the intention to teach people issues related to HIV and Aids prevention, safe sex, and treatment.”
The Zimbabwean government’s National Aids Council (NAC) fosters also HIV and Aids awareness campaigns among the country’s ancient tribe, according to Tsoro-O-Tso San.
To do this, NAC works in conjunction with the country’s Health ministry to provide anti-retroviral drugs to the minority tribe, a gesture that has put smiles on many HIV-positive Khoisans like Sidingo.
“Back in the years, as the Khoisan, we thought our people were being bewitched, as we saw them succumbing to Aids, but thanks to the treatment, we have started to live on even with the virus,” Sidingo said. — IPS