The first time I met Masibulele Gcabo was in an HIV support group meeting. He was wearing a Comrades marathon jacket (for those of you that don’t know the Comrades is a 90km marathon from Durban to Pietermaritzburg). Presumptuously, I thought at first that he had been given it by a friend, I did not think it was possible that a man taking ARVS could run the Comrades. However I soon found out that he had indeed run that marathon in 9 hours 20 minutes, and 10 others in the space of 7 years.
I am not going to tell you one story about Masibulele, I am going to tell you three or four. But you will see how they are interlinked.
Masibulele started running in 2001, in order to save himself the transport money to work each day. He was making 30 rand a day at a construction site in Johannesburg, and out of that 8 rand was spent on the taxi fare. So he started to run the 16 km to work each day, which would take him roughly 1 hour 20 minutes. He ran there and back, totalling 32 km per day.
Like so many men living in the rural Eastern Cape, Masibulele was under pressure to leave his home to find work in order to support his family. The catalyst came with a tornado that hit his community, destroying his home, so he and his family went to live with his Aunt. As “the man” he decided to leave school without finishing, having only passed standard 7, and find work in Gauteng.
Masibulele started to have a number of problems with his health in 2004: Rashes, an STI – ‘drop’ (gonorrhoea), and flu-like symptoms every 2-3 weeks. He went home to his rural clinic, and had an HIV test at the recommendation of one of the nurses. His positive status came as a shock to him, but he remembers the nurse saying to him that “it is not the end of the world, life continues.
So Masibulele returned to Gauteng, to his construction job. Still struggling to accept his status, “not sure of his result”, he had another HIV test which again turned out to be positive. He found an HIV support group where he started to come to terms with being HIV positive.
In 2005 Masibulele’s immune system started to become weak, as he says, because of the heavy nature of the job he was doing, which was not suitable for someone who is HIV positive. And, as Masibulele tells me now, he was a hard worker. He started ARVS with a CD4 count of 184.
However even during this time he continued to run, “sometimes 21km, sometimes 42.” Since he started running in 2001, Masibulele has only taken a week off running.
“I never slept at the hospital because of this illness. Even when I had the flu I could run 5 km.”
Needing to take time off work to go to the doctor, Masibulele explained to one of his colleagues that he was HIV positive. It was not long before he started to sense the negative attitudes amongst his work-mates.
“I started to see that they were not accepting me like before. The place of love was falling down. They told me the job is finished, and there is a reduction in numbers. They said you must wait, we will call you if maybe the boss is finding the job again. I have been waiting until now.”
Without employment, Masibulele returned home to Buntingville. He found there was no HIV support group there.
“I asked the nurses, where is the support group in Buntingville? I asked them why is there no group, yet you are testing the people? Where must they go when they test positive? So I decided to open the support group. I went house to house, counselling them, because you can see that a man is HIV positive from the symptoms, you can see the stages.”
Masibulele recalls the fatal silence surrounding HIV/AIDS in his community at the time.
“They are aware that HIV is killing everybody there, but they don’t want to test. People are dying at the end. They say if the lady is dead, she died of HIV, but if she is alive, they don’t say she is HIV positive.”
Through Masibulele’s efforts, there is now a strong support group in Buntingville, with 30 members. These people have a space within which they feel free to discuss their HIV positive status, their challenges, and to identify ways in which they can help each other and their communities.
Masibulele continues to run, and he is hoping to compete in the Comrades next year in under 8 hours. However he is struggling to find a sponsor. His training is affected by the fact that he has no running partner, club or coach, and that he can’t afford to buy new running shoes.
“The main problem of running on the road is the takkies! If you are running with the takkies there is a sole like this, if the black one is finished there is a white sole. When running on the road the black one is finished!”
Masibulele would also like to find a sponsor, to fundraise for his support group, to help them start their own garden so they can grow fresh vegetables.
I ask Masibulele what is driving him to run, and to compete in such a challenging race. I explain that even people who do not have HIV, like myself – also a runner – find the prospect of the Comrades daunting to say the least. Not to mention running it as someone who is taking ARVS. Masibulele smiles.
“To run even a 42 km, HIV is remaining on the brain. Do not tell your brain that I am very sick and I can’t do anything. Because you are not disabled, you can work, you can run, you can be a footballer again, you can go to school and start to be a police man if you want to be a police man. You can’t think it [HIV] is the end of the life. It is why I want to show that even if you are HIV positive you can run 90km as well.”