“Mbali”, which in Zulu means flower, is a shy, sweet energetic 12 year old child who lives in the municipality of Matatiele at the foot of the Drakensberg mountains in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. On first appearance she is a seemingly normal child who leads a typical existence within her community and has all the traits of an active pre-teen. The quiet reality is that Mbali, like so many living in this region, has been deeply affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic that has ravaged much of southern Africa.
Mbali is an orphan due to the loss of her parents to the AIDS virus and was born HIV – positive. Her survival has been made possible due to anti-retroviral treatments and the benefits of drop-in centres put in place by African Solutions to African Problems, a grassroots organization run by local women that provides community-based support for children made vulnerable by the AIDS pandemic in South Africa. On this day, Mbali and her caretaker, Mantsoaki Mosenye pack up for the journey to Mparane Clinc to replenish Mbali’s anti-retroviral medication. The 4-kilometer trip is made twice a month prior to Mbali’s walk to school. The bi-monthly ritual starts a little after 7 with Mbali sifting through her nightstand drawer to find her prescription documents. In little under a minute’s time she produces a plastic bag containing a series of neatly folded pieces of lined paper containing her treatment schedule and required dosages of her anti-retroviral treatment.
Mbali’s caretaker, Mantsoaki Mosenye inspects Mbali’s prescription documents which detail her treatment schedule and required dosages. I wasn’t given much detail about Mbali’s CD4 count beyond the fact that it was “good” and that she has been in good health for some time. Her access to treatment and medication has had a significant impact on her life and the lives of other vulnerable youth in the Eastern Cape.
On the days that Mbali goes to pick up her medication, her journey is made significantly longer as the walk to school is an additional kilometer after reaching the clinic. On these days, her total walk in both directions is 10 kilometers.
Our first steps outside reveal the beautiful landscape of varied terrain that is the Eastern Cape. Rolling hills, vast grassy plains dotted with traditional thatched roof homes and grazing horses that are characteristic of the area around Matatiele. Mbali steps out ahead of us, seemingly anxious to greet the day, full of energy and focused on facing the journey ahead.
Mbali’s caretaker, Mantsoaki Mosenye walks close to Mbali during the walk to the Mparane clinic. Along the way, Mbali walks over varied terrain through fields and on rough gravel roads, encountering wandering livestock along with a plethora of potential hazards. Factors like weather and the seasons can make the journey even more treacherous. At a few points during our trek, we pause for a brief respite to allow Mbali (but mainly me) to rest. I am winded, outdone by my young vibrant companion.
After 2 hours of walking we arrive at the Mparane clinic, a series of new, long narrow buildings behind a fenced in enclosure on a hillside over looking the municipality. Mbali is in and out in under 15 minutes, departing the clinic in a hurried fashion now anxious to get to school on time and settle into her lessons. She takes this all in stride, seemingly completely unfazed by the special journey she has just made or the illness that necessitated the journey in the first place.
Story and photos by Jemal Countess (a New York photographer)