Wednesday, 1 June 2011

10 years on

The door flies open. Lele peers in.

"You must come out here and see. They are doing a play!"

I finish up my case file annotation and come to the doorway. The waiting area is in chaos. A gang of school children are manhandling a couple of marimba's to the space in front of the consulting rooms, a team of nurses and counsellors are creating a stage area. Patients look on mutely. Some with interest, others - presumably feeling proportionately less well - without.

"What is going on?" I ask.

"It is 10 years since the clinic started. 10 years since MSF first started the HIV treatment programme and proved that it could be done in Africa. So the staff are celebrating. They are doing a show or something."

The sister in charge of the clinic has moved to the front of the crowd of patients. She calls for silence and then gives a short introduction. Lele translates for me.

"She is saying that this is a very important day. 10 years ago people were dying. And 10 years ago right here is where people began getting treatment..."

Lele is silent for a while as Sister talks further.

"... she apologising for the delay in seeing the doctor," she mutters.

I become aware of a insistent pulling at my trouser leg. I look down and see a 5 year old boy. He tugs and points at my stethoscope. I place it in his ears and whisper "Molo" (Hello) into the other end. He grins.

"Molo!" he shouts.

Sister introduces another lady. She is dressed in a colourful cape and immediately starts shouting and singing loudly in Xhosa, all the time swirling and running up and down the waiting benches. She is a Praise Singer.

"She is praising Ubuntu Clinic and God," Lele explains. There follows a rapid stream of Xhosa - I catch "35kg" and "85kg". "When she first came here 6 years ago she was very sick and weighed just 35kg. Now she has been on ARVs for 6 years and she is 85kg." Everyone cheers and applauds.

The play begins. Sister introduces the cast in English. Thabo Mbheki - played by a counsellor - nods solemnly. Manto - a previous health minister who resisted ARV treatment for so long extolling instead the virtues of vegetables - scowls at the audience as she booed loudly. Dr Rath - a quack who marketed his own vitamin pill as a substitute to
ARVs - is played by the best known doctor in the clinic in a colourful clowns wig to great hilarity. Scripts are read, large crowds of nurses and counsellors play the parts of patients and pressure groups. There is dancing, chanting, singing. The school boys play their Marimbas with impressive skill and enthusiasm at appropriate points.

And I am moved by the story. By the suffering and ignorance and denial people experienced. By the commitment of those - many of them here - who fought and campaigned for treatment. And by the enthusiasm and zeal they continue to demonstrate for those suffering in their communities. And for the joy in what they have achieved. It is only the tip of the iceberg but there are thousand of people on treatment in the city now - healthy, working, raising their families. And it is because of what started here.