Sinikethemba Choir

by Wendy Jewell

http://sinikithemba.org/
http://sinikithemba.org/

The reality of the exploding Aids Crisis in South Africa is shocking. According to PositiveMoms.org, South Africa has the highest number of people living with HIV in the world and of the approximately 5.3 million people with HIV/AIDS, 2.9 million are women. Sub-Saharan Africa has 10% of the world's population but 60% of all people living with HIV. The impact is catastrophic. Deaths are increasing. Hospitals can't keep up. Workers are becoming scarce and the number of orphans is increasing at an alarming rate. The STIGMA of aids has often had very bad results and that is one of the reasons that the recent RETROVIRUS CONFERENCE, featuring the leading members of the medical, scientific, UN, and ngo community, chose "BREAKING THE SILENCE", as its theme.

In 1996, the doctors, nurses and administrators of the McCord Hospital in Durban, South Africa realized it would be helpful to form a support group for people living with HIV/AIDS and SINIKITHEMBA was created. At this hospital, about 70% of admissions are HIV-related and about 40% of the women giving birth are infected with HIV. The SINIKITHEMBA support group, believed to be the first of its kind in Sub-Saharan Africa, was the only place its members felt safe to share their HIV status. Outside of the group they faced the reality of being ostracized by friends and family if their infection status became known. The group did Zulu sewing and bead work to help pay for their treatment and following in the rich African tradition of SINGING, whether you are happy or sad…they sang while they worked. The amazing SINIKITHEMBA CHOIR was born.

Sinikithemba Choir (labnow.com)
Sinikithemba Choir (labnow.com)

The SINIKITHEMBA CHOIR is a rare shining light in the rapidly growing darkness that is the HIV/AIDS CRISIS in South Africa. All the choir members are HIV+. All the choir members are very brave to have gone public with their HIV status considering the stigma that permeates South Africa regarding people that are known carriers of HIV. And they went very public by singing at the Opening Session of the 10th annual RETROVIRUS CONFERENCE, the leading HIV research meeting in the world, held in the USA a few years ago. At one point they shared the stage with former President Bill Clinton, whose Clinton Foundation has played a leading role in the fight to not only TREAT AIDS but PREVENT IT.

AIDS MURAL from The-Art-Miles-Mural-Project (www.the-art-miles-mural-project.org)
AIDS MURAL from The-Art-Miles-Mural-Project (www.the-art-miles-mural-project.org)

Over the years choir members have lost husbands, babies and each other. One of their choir members, Zinhle Tabethe, spoke at the 2003 Retrovirus Conference, about living with HIV and her experiences with antiretroviral therapy. Here are some excerpts from her speach.

"You all know the World Health Organization statistics on HIV/AIDS. We ARE those statistics.

On Saturdays, we go to funerals for our friends, our neighbors, and our families. And in our support group we have lost 10 members this past year to AIDS. At support groups on Tuesday, when you look around the room and see there is no face, you become very worried if that person is sick or what's going on."

10 months before this speech, Zinhle had been battling opportunistic infections, became too weak to walk and could only crawl back and forth to the bathroom. She thought it was the end for her but miraculously she got into a pilot study that provided antiretroviral drugs. Some people think that really poor countries with poor, uneducated people shouldn't get these drugs because they would miss doses and end up with a resistant virus that could then spread.

She continued, "I am from a poor family. When I was at my most sick…I had been fired from my work and was living with my family…my family had no income…our house had no electricity and no running water….There are no people anywhere who live more basic than what I've just shared with you. But I am adherent to my ARV's. I can tell you that ever since I started medication, I have never missed a dose. Ever.

So what can I, as one of the HIV+ persons and we, as the Sinikithemba Choir say to you? Well, we want to say thank you. Thank you very much for the job that you have done so far. And I want to thank you-thank you in advance for the job that you're still going to do. The word sinikithemba means "give us hope". You do that with your job. You give us hope. You give us hope that we will, at one day, or some day, have treatment that will save our lives. Thank you."

My Hero spoke with another choir member, Bhekani Gambu, who was in Durban, South Africa.

Who is your hero?

"Firstly I can say I have several people who have made meaningful contributions in my life whom I can call my heroes. Professor Bruce Walker, head of the Harvard Aids Unit, gave me another chance and hope in life by giving me access to ARV treatment. Also, Professor Joseph Shabalala (Ladysmith Black Mamazo) for being there when my life had no hope about the future."

How has being in the Sinikithemba Choir changed your life?

"My being part of the choir has helped me to be open about my status and encouraged me to help other people who are in need."

What would you say if you had the attention of the world for 5 minutes?

"I would urge the world to help those people who are in need and always remember that lives are more important than making a profit."

What gives you joy?

"Seeing people who are in need getting hope about their situation, makes me happy."

What advice do you have for teenagers?

"Teenagers must ensure that they make good decisions about their lives that will benefit them tomorrow."

You have obviously seen so many of the horrors that accompany this pandemic, how do you keep going?

"My belief in God and seeing progress in my life keeps me going."

Elton John sings with the Sinikithemba Choir (learnspace.cc)
Elton John sings with the Sinikithemba Choir (learnspace.cc)

When speaking with Stephen Ceresia, manager of media relations at LabNow,(one of the companies that has sponsored the choir to tour in the US), he stressed that the choir wants the world to know that HIV IS NOT A DEATH SENTENCE, especially if you can get access to ARV's and treatment management. Lab Now will soon be releasing its portable point-of-care analyzer and CD4 BioChip in 2006. Millions of people who have not had access to high tech testing in major centres will now be able to get it with the portability of this little machine. Everyone that is HIV+ does not necessarily need treatment, it depends on their CD4 count, which is a lymphocyte test. Once people can monitor their count, they know if they need ARV's and how much they must take if they need them.

All members of the Sinikithemba Choir are now taking Anti Retro Viral drugs, which control symptoms of the disease and allow them to lead more normal lives. Despite early reservations about disclosing their HIV status, the Choir now performs to raise awareness of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. They have sung before and with many important people, including Sir Elton John, who, after singing with them in South Africa invited them to come and sing at his annual Aids Benefit in England. Elton John spoke of wanting to focus on hope and courage and tenacity of people overcoming disease and despair. His Elton John Foundation has sponsored a number of projects in South Africa, many aimed at setting up facilities to care for orphans and vulnerable children.

The SINIKITHEMBA CHOIR continues to bring hope to those living with the disease while helping to remove its stigma. Check out their inspiring music by going to their website, sinikithemba.org. Support their fight for life and change by buying there CD, and Zulu bead work and jewellry. Help them to help themselves. The world is a better place with them in it. Thank you, SINIKITHEMBA CHOIR! I look forward to seeing your magic in person someday.

Related Links

- Check out their website for more on this amazing group of inspiring people. You can lend your support by buying their CD or other handcrafted works of art. It's a win win.
William J. Clinton Foundation - It is our duty as children of the same God and citizens of the same planet to pool our energies and banish the scourge of AIDS from the headlines of our newspapers to the chapters of our history books once and for all.
- The Sinikithemba Choir turns stage into soapbox, singing and speaking for 5 million HIV+ South Africans. (check out this short film about the choir)
- The PositiveMoms Foundation was established to help HIV-positive mothers in South Africa to access life-saving treatment and medical care. Click here to see how you can join them in their mission.
Global Business Coalition On HIV/AIDS - The GBC is the pre-eminent organization leading the business fight against HIV/AIDS. The rapidly-expanding alliance of international companies is dedicated to combating the AIDS epidemic through the business sector's unique skills and expertise.

Author Info

SINIKITHEMBA means WE BRING HOPE in ZULU