Before coming to Swaziland, I had a picture of what I thought I would see. It wasn’t a clear picture, but an idea I guess. You hear of so many different statistics and I think that those numbers become your picture of what you will see. I would read that Swaziland is the highest AIDS infected country in the world….that 40% of the country is infected. These numbers are staggering. I think about how this would look in Canada. Our doctors would be overwhelmed. Our pharmacies would have line ups for people waiting to pick up their ARV’s to stay alive. Our hospitals would be overrun attempting to prolong people’s lives and give them a dignified place to die.
What I thought I would find in Swaziland is the same desperation to find medical help, but without the access to it. I thought AIDS would have a clear face….that we would be able to see its effects and maybe even discover possibilities of how to solve them. What I have found is very different.
I have learnt that AIDS is an almost invisible disease here in Swaziland. The only evidence we have seen of it so far is when the missionaries working with the children tell us which children are infected because they have taken the initiative to find out. Maybe I had this idea that everyone that was infected would have a sign on their back or something….but the reality is that this disease is a silent killer here. People do not know if they are infected or not. The stigma is so negative, and the education is so poor, that people simply will not get tested for this disease….because if they don’t get tested then they don’t know….and if they don’t know then they are not infected.
Jumbo (the South African worker from Children’s Hope Chest) told me something that startled me. He said, “nobody dies of AIDS in Swaziland.” I was confused and asked him what he meant. He explained that the shame of the disease is still so high that people won’t mark on their death certificates that they died of AIDS….but rather of TB or some other disease. We had heard statistics before we came of the HIV infection rate in Swaziland…..some places said 38%, some said over 40%. Jumbo said the latest he had heard was 44% from the UN statistics. In the Western world we trust and rely on statistics to give us a picture of any given problem we see. The thing is, those statistics really don’t mean anything here…..any statistic you read is actually just at best an educated guess. The reason I say that is that very few people in this country have ever been tested. Most do not know if they are infected or not. When people get sick from this disease, they are not taken to get help, but are left alone in their homes to die….and when they do die, the family will make up another disease that killed them to avoid the stigma.
Relief workers have tried to help, and have made some progress….but it has been very small. When clinics are set up in rural villages, the people will be told to come for testing the next day and everyone will say “yes, I’ll be there”. They will prepare for hundreds of people, and 3 will show up.
The stories we hear are heartbreaking. The freedom that this disease is given is so sad. Children being infected by their fathers & uncles. Mothers infecting their children through breastfeeding….not because they want to….but because their babies will die if they don’t get fed and they have no other source of food. The effects of this disease can be seen everywhere. In a country of around 900,000 people, over 120,000 children are orphans because their parents have died from AIDS. (these are one the ground statistics). In the past few years, the country’s population has dropped by 15-20% because of people dying from AIDS….and those people are dying alone…..silently….and in horrific conditions.