Nkosi’s Haven is one of South Africa’s best-known centers for mothers living with HIV and orphans.
BY ERIKA SCHULTZ
JOHANNESBURG – Gail John-son shudders when she thinks of all the tiny white coffins in South Africa 15 years ago.
The children playing outside her office windows won’t face the same fate as that of her foster son Nkosi Johnson. He was HIV-positive, a diagnosis that no longer means widespread, hostile discrimination or a death sentence.
“The transformation is phenomenal from a life point-of-view,” she said. “People are living. … There are no traffic jams in cemeteries as there were.”
Nkosi’s Haven — one of South Africa’s best-known centers for mothers living with HIV and for orphans — marked the 15th anniversary of Nkosi Johnson’s death on June 1.
Named after deceased
The organization, with an annual budget of under $300,000, was named for Nkosi, who spoke at the International AIDS Conference in Durban in 2000. He died the next year at age 12. Gail Johnson created the residential center at Nkosi’s request, she said, to allow mothers with HIV to live with their children without fear of separation.
On a recent day, the small, colorful set of cottages bustles with 25 HIV-positive mothers and 96 children (of those, 71 are orphans and 35 have HIV).
Teenage girls braid hair and listen to music after school, while older women knit in the winter sun.
Middle-school-age boys work in the computer lab, while some young girls dash off to practice their dance moves. Inside the kitchen, Gail Johnson, the executive director, takes a break from her computer to taste tomorrow’s meal.
After dinner, mothers and children file into the nursing station to take antiretroviral drugs to control the virus.
Today, South Africa has the largest ARV treatment program in the world, allowing people with HIV to lead rather normal, productive lives.
Although South Africa continues to have one of the highest HIV-infection rates in the world, the treatment program has helped increase national life expectancy in the past decade from 53 to over 60.
“Now mums are living and lasting indefinitely, which is great,” Johnson said. “We now have to look at building the capacity of the mothers, so that they can be employable. … Our profile might have to change. But our women still need to be protected.”
In South Africa, young women engaging in heterosexual sex are most at risk for HIV. The 2012 National Antenatal Survey reported that nearly 30 percent of pregnant girls and women were HIV positive; mother-to-child transmission has declined significantly.
Lindiwe, 23, believes she was infected with HIV when she was sexually assaulted as a child. After growing up with her grandmother, and then in an orphanage, she found stable housing and counseling at Nkosi’s Haven more than a year ago.
“I’ve accepted that I am positive and there’s nothing I can do to change that,” she said. “The only way I can change it is by making people’s lives better, making them understand that you can actually live with this, as long as you accept it and drink your medication.”