By Synne Garff, Danish Bible Society
Shortly after Swazi journalist Winnie Ncongwane fell pregnant she felt ill. She had a horrible suspicion why. Her husband had been unfaithful to her almost from the moment they had met.
“Every time I confronted him he immediately broke up with his mistress but he would always find a new one,” she says. “I naïvely believed that having a baby would help bind us together. I was wrong.”
Winnie was devastated when her fears were confirmed and she tested positive for HIV. Angry and confused she asked herself, “Why has this happened to me? Why has God punished me?” Worried about their reaction, she did not tell anyone about her diagnosis apart from her husband. She urged him to be tested but he refused.
Minimise the risk
Her main worry, however, was their unborn child. To minimise the risk of infecting the baby at birth she arranged to have a caesarean section. But when the time came her labour progressed too quickly and her baby – a daughter – was born naturally.
Winnie paid to have her tested as quickly as possible. But she had to wait seven long weeks for the results. Every time her baby coughed she was filled with dread.
“I will never forget the day I got the results: HIV negative,” she smiles. “My daughter was safe. That is why I named her Vikelwe, which means ‘protected’ in SiSwati.”
Shortly afterwards her husband became ill and tested positive for HIV. She battled with him to take his medicine and he turned violent. His affairs with other women continued and he refused to use condoms, despite Winnie’s repeated requests. He also started to rape her.
“One might wonder why I stayed with that man. But I loved him and wanted to rescue him,” Winnie reflects. Her husband died when their child was just a few years old. Searching for help and support, Winnie spoke to a pastor. He was the only person, apart from her husband, that she told about being HIV-positive. He listened and was helpful but recommended that she keep her illness secret.
Although she gave up formal work during the first few years of her daughter’s life, she started volunteering at the Bible Society of Swaziland. It was there that she came across the Good Samaritan program, which uses the Bible to challenge people to care for those with HIV or AIDS instead of stigmatising and rejecting them. It also encourages those with the virus to talk about their experience in order to help others.
I had hope again
“The Good Samaritan program taught me to be open about my illness,” says Winnie. “I found the strength and courage to speak freely and I found that it really helped me to deal with my issues as well as help others. All the questions I had about what had happened to me were answered through the Bible. My anger disappeared and, most importantly, I had hope again.
“Every evening my daughter gets me a glass of water. ‘It’s time for your pill, Mom.’ She doesn’t know why. Yet. Living with HIV does not take anything away from me. I’m still Winnie. Sometimes I even forget I have HIV!”
Although Winnie is now employed full-time with an organisation working to fight tuberculosis she continues to volunteer with the Bible Society, working on their Good Samaritan program. The pastor who earlier advised her to not to talk about her illness is also now part of the program, encouraging people to talk openly about HIV and AIDS.
Photographs by Adam Garff