I am your average, Capetonian through and through. I dreamed as an eager young 27 year old, back in 1999, of being one of the first South Africans to win an Oscar. Caught in the glamour of the television industry, a young star in the making, so I thought. The world was my oyster. I was involved in my first ever relationship, in love, and monogamous.
I was your average South African in many ways, believing, pretty much like everyone else, that it wouldn’t happen to me. AIDS only happened to other people – despite living in the most infected country in the world, and not knowing my own status or that of my partner. Never did I think I would become a statistic.
I thought I had malaria, having just returned from a film shoot in the Kruger National Park. You can imagine my shock at learning that I was HIV-positive. I still remember, as if it was yesterday, Dr Shuman’s reply to my very first question, “how long do I have to live?” Her response, “one, two or maybe five years, I really couldn’t tell you!”
This was my wake up call. I realised in that moment that I might not even make 30. There was still so much I wanted to do with my life. The virus showed me how to appreciate what I have in every moment. The experience awakened a possibility that I too could play a part in inspiring others to care enough about their own lives not to put themselves at risk. To appreciate how precious this life can be.
Experiencing fullness in life is so much to do with giving back. This is what the Sizwe Sonke Quilting Project of South Africa is about for me. I remember the first time I saw the quilts on display. Like tombstones, the quilts lay out on the ground, row after row. This was a stark reminder of the massive loss of human life to one little virus. I was silenced by the emotion rising up in every person that walked passed.
So much of my work in HIV/AIDS is about overcoming denial. The quilts are a striking reminder to face the reality of the pandemic. With the silence created by fear and shame, it is difficult for people to grieve openly for loved ones lost. Quilt-making becomes a journey of healing, of grieving together, of finding hope again.
Through this project, I have had the opportunity to share my message of hope with more than 130,000 learners and teachers in and around South Africa. The despair experienced by so many young people, so full of dreams yet devastated by the effects of this pandemic is evident. One of schools I worked with in 2000 had lost three teachers to HIV/AIDS in one week! Another high school close by knew of 29 of their students who were HIV-positive.
Siwze Sonke means “uniting a nation.” HIV/AIDS demands that we work together to build a future worth living for. Now is the time to act. It is up to each of us to choose to live.
If there has been any lesson or gift that I’ve got from living with my virus, it’s to appreciate every day that I’m still alive. Perhaps that is what we South Africans are unconsciously looking for when we put our lives at risk? What if that is the one thing that we would trade anything for? What I am talking about is a deep sense of gratitude; those moments when you have a strong sense of the magnificence of being alive, those moments when just that is enough.
Let’s choose to appreciate this opportunity; maybe with gratitude it will be easier to love ourselves enough not to want to put our lives at risk?