Survival tales from the Bulawayo pitch

By Joanne Sage

The 2010 Fifa World Cup is in its final stage and the excitement in Southern Africa is still palpable even in Zimbabwe where I work as a nurse for Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) on an HIV/Aids treatment project. An excitement that can’t be dampened despite the disappointment of Ghana’s Black Stars.

Seeing as this is the first time I’ve written a blog I was stuck with the inevitable “where do I start?” dilemma. But a discussion with our outreach staff and information, education and communication (IEC) department set me on a journey in understanding how our patients view the topic of HIV relating to soccer. As it turns out, one of the many IEC activities that MSF carries out in Bulawayo is to support the monthly recreational activities hosted by the HIV peer-support groups.

There are a total of 145 support groups in Bulawayo, which meet weekly, and once a month, all the districts (made up of ten support groups each) meet and play football and netball together. MSF provides logistical and material support, which includes the supply of soccer balls, refreshments, transport and a first-aid kit. We also facilitate an empowerment programme for focal persons in the support groups. So, last week I decided to go along and meet everybody and hear their thoughts on HIV, football and the World Cup.

These are their stories:

Shedias, a peer support group leader, was treated for tuberculosis in 2002 and also tested HIV positive. He said: “Being HIV positive is like a game of football: you either win or lose. I take it as winning. By working as a team and living positively we can beat HIV. One of the key players is the goalkeeper, he stops HIV from scoring! Soccer is a fast game, it moves fast like HIV but by playing soccer we can also spread important messages about HIV by networking and sharing stories.”

Junior, also a peer support group leader, tested HIV positive in 2006 and started the Victory support group which now has 59 members. They make candles, peanut butter and have vegetable gardens in their backyards. The money they receive from selling these items helps pay for their children’s school fees and medications to treat opportunistic infections (these medications are not always available and they have to buy them at private pharmacies).

“Antiretrovirals (ARVs) are the defenders in the game of soccer. They stop re-infection and help us to have a stress-free life,” said Junior.

Dick, a peer support group member, tested HIV positive in 2009 and started ARVs in January 2010. He’s been a soccer coach for twelve years and has helped develop a boys’ team to national level. He then became sick and started to withdraw from his involvement in football. He recently disclosed his status, which has helped with his adherence to taking his ARV drugs and his family members now remind him when it is time to take his treatment. Now that he is beginning to feel better he wants to become more involved in football again.

I found the experiences of talking to people who are open and living positively with HIV incredibly inspiring and real. It makes me think that HIV is not only about receiving ARVs, but also about being able to conquer the mental aspect of this disease.

Joanne Sage is an Australian nurse working with MSF in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. She joined the MSF in 2004 and has also worked in Sudan and Ethiopia.