South Africa

South African School Teacher Fights AIDS: "I Must Do Something."

Chris Lawrence

A crowded public bus sputters through the suburban hills outside Durban, South Africa, on a cloudy Wednesday morning. Jammed with people, the bus jostles a tangled mass of bodies, swaying against each other and jockeying for position. Standing in the crowd is a schoolteacher named Lungie Zama.

Because she doesn't own a car, Mrs. Zama must endure the congested bus to get to school each day. "Move back!" a man shouts angrily at people in the aisle. More passengers squeeze on board.

Statistically, for every five people boarding the bus, at least one of them has HIV or AIDS. The pandemic of AIDS threatens the entire globe, but the province of KwaZulu-Natal has the highest rate of infection with HIV in South Africa, according to UNAIDS, a United Nations-affiliated program.

Yet on the bus, and across the society, the insidious problem is virtually unseen. Because of fear, ignorance and cultural stigmas, people desperately and cleverly hide the disease.

Mrs. Zama has had friends die from the disease, and one of her nieces. "As a Christian I can't ignore HIV," says Mrs. Zama, 47. "I must do something."

But how can one woman -- especially a teacher at a poor school -- do anything about such a widespread problem?

Today she goes to school. After a 90-minute ride, Mrs. Zama steps off the bus, carrying a large purse and a bag of books over her shoulder. The bus disappears in a puff of diesel smoke. Mrs. Zama joins a flock of children and other teachers as they amble up a gravel road toward her school.

Makhapha Primary School includes children in grades kindergarten through 10. The poor suburb is mostly populated by Zulus, the largest ethnic group in South Africa.

A barbed-wire fence surrounds the perimeter of the schoolyard. The school consists of six industrial buildings with metal roofs and a gravel parking lot. In the distance, a variety of dwellings dot the rolling green hills: houses, decaying shanties and thatched huts.
Mrs. Zama grew up in these same hills.

When she was young, Mrs. Zama dreamed of being a teacher. It was a high aspiration: Teaching is one of the most influential professions in South Africa. 

Mrs. Zama's accomplishments far exceed a typical teacher. She recently finished her master's degree in education and plans to pursue her doctorate. "If I want to be a good teacher I must remain a student," she says.

Reminiscent of a tornado siren, the morning school bell wails, and the students quickly filter into classrooms. Clad in faded uniforms, even the girls have hair shaved short to deter the spread of lice.

Mrs. Zama walks into a classroom, and sets down her purse and books. More than 50 children occupy the room, packed three students to a desk. "Let's be quiet, grade seven," says Mrs. Zama in a powerful voice. The steady murmur hushes, and the students face forward.

The children appear healthy, normal. Yet many are HIV orphans, and some may even have the disease themselves. In the last five years, there has never been a public case of HIV at Makhapha, though some students have died mysteriously from illnesses that point to the disease. "HIV is a silent killer to the people of South Africa," she says. "People pretend as if it is not there."

One of Mrs. Zama's students has missed school for more than two months because of tuberculosis -- in many cases a telltale sign of HIV. Since it attacks a person's immune system, HIV can hide behind a mask of many other health problems.

Concerned for her student, Mrs. Zama went to visit the 15-year-old girl, Ntombifuthi Nojiyeza, yesterday after school. The girl was coughing constantly and appeared much thinner than Mrs. Zama remembered. Ntombifuthi's parents haven't taken her to get an HIV blood test-perhaps from fear or ignorance. So a cloud of the hypothetical hangs over the family.

In the area where Mrs. Zama teaches, often there is a gap of knowledge between the students and their parents. Many of the parents are illiterate, she says, and they have little or no understanding of HIV.

Six years ago, the department of education made HIV and AIDS teaching mandatory in South Africa's schools. Twenty-four of the schools near Durban use a curriculum from CrossRoads, a ministry of Cru. Called Life Skills, the program equips teachers to help students stop the spread of HIV and AIDS by teaching them about character, using Jesus as the role model.

"We are fighting a battle that no one can win on their own," says Nami Mchunu, chief education specialist with the South African Department of Education. "We see CrossRoads as a complement to what we have already been doing in the schools."

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