Tuesday, January 27, 2009

in the staffroom during lunch just now,

some colleagues sitting around me were deeply involved in a conversation of a serious matter. As they were speaking in Xhosa it was their body languages and hushed tones that conveyed the topic of their discussion to me rather than their words.

When they stopped, I asked the one closest to me what they had been talking about.

"Death," came her reply. "Death and breavement."

Death is an inescapable part of township life. It is everywhere - from the dead dogs that are so common on the roads into and around Gugulethu, to the shack fires that regularly destroy homes (the most recent a mighty blaze that erased 200 shacks and left over 1000 homeless), to the teacher absences several times a month for bereavement, to the metaphorical death of potential so visible in the countless young adults - high school dropouts or grads - I see wandering around the townships during the day, desolate and unemployed.

I asked my colleague what she would guess the leading cause of death to be in those that are dying before their time.

"HIV, especially young women," she replied without a moment's hesitation.

I asked her if she knew many people who were positive.

"Yes. And who have died. We all do."

She spoke of how women are the more easily infected and how the power balance in sexual relationships is so extremely far from equal.

"It is not even a surprise," she said, "to hear of a married woman who has been infected by her husband."

This increasingly common occurrence is of course due to the husbands in these relationships being unfaithful, not using protection in these extra-marital affairs, and refusing to use condoms with their wives.

My colleague continued. “Men - especially married men - do not like to wear condoms. They say that they do not enjoy sex with them, and find it an insult to even be asked."

Confirmation of this behavior by adult men comes as little surprise. I have often seen evidence of these learned attitudes and beliefs exhibited by my male students who spout a similar rhetoric when justifying their unsafe sex practices.