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Wednesday, 01 October 2008 02:00

A Quest to Understand the Stigma of HIV/Aids

By  Karina Magdalena Szczurek
By winning the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award twice for his first two books, Midlands (2002) and The Number (2004), Jonny Steinberg has become one of the best-known non-fiction writers in South Africa. This success was followed by Notes from a Fractured Country (2007), a selection of some of the best columns he wrote as a journalist for Business Day. In 2008, Steinberg has published two new titles: Three-Letter Plague: A Young Man's Journey through a Great Epidemic in the beginning of the year, and most recently Thin Blue.

The Jonny Steinberg brand stands for insight, integrity and empathy. These qualities, combined with a powerful and rich style, make his books intellectually stimulating page-turners. Three-Letter Plague is a real eye-opener, taking the reader right into the heart of the most enigmatic aspect of the HIV/Aids epidemic – the stigma attached to the virus and its consequences.

Puzzled by recent findings that people continue dying en masse because of HIV/Aids in spite of some communities' access to lifesaving medicine and treatment, Steinberg chose one of such communities in the Eastern Cape and travelled there to investigate what went wrong in the process of administering antiretroviral drugs to people who desperately needed them to survive and yet did not reach out for them. He wanted to discover why people seemed to choose death while residing within walking distance of a clinic offering them the possibility of fighting for their lives.

Initially, two men stand at the centre of his inquiry: Hermann Reuter, a doctor from Doctors Without Borders running the antiretroviral programme in the rural district of Lusikisiki in the Eastern Cape province, and Sizwe Magadla, a young, fairly successful shop-owner in the same district.

While Hermann Reuter's dictum is "if you provide treatment that works, people will come and get it", Sizwe Magadla refuses even to test for the virus, in spite of the fact that his partner and child both test negative and his chances for the same result are fairly high. Steinberg wants to know where Sizwe Magadla's fear and resistance come from, and why so many of the people living in the same community, when tested positive, deny themselves the chances to survive.

The tentative answers Steinberg receives in the course of his investigation, however enlightening, remain unsatisfactory until he decides to bring a third person into his inquiry: himself. Steinberg recounts with unflinching honesty his own experiences with testing for the virus and by doing so sheds light on Sizwe Magadla's decisions in a way that allows the reader to follow the two men's journey in a more comprehensive, intimate way than would have been otherwise possible. This brave step takes one on a cathartic reading experience that will not be easily forgotten.

Another fascinating aspect of Three-Letter Plague is the way Steinberg allows his inquiry to unfold on several levels, encompassing other systems of evaluation and belief than his own. Perspectives co-exist to paint a broader, more comprehensive picture. Magadla's perception of the world differs radically from Steinberg's. The success of Three-Letter Plague lies in the respect Steinberg shows for the other man's viewpoint and the space he offers Magadla to present it. Without comprehending the world that comes alive through Magadla's stories one cannot begin to fathom his attitude towards HIV and Aids.

The HIV/Aids epidemic is one of the greatest challenges South Africa is facing today. Steinberg's book does not offer ready-made solutions to this gigantic problem, but it helps to understand the dynamics at work in the cauldron of polemics and emotions surrounding the epidemic. Three-Letter Plague is a must-read for all of us who live – and want to continue living responsibly – in a country with one of the highest HIV-infection rates in the world.

Three-Letter Plague: A Young Man's Journey through a Great Epidemic
by Jonny Steinberg
Cape Town: Jonathan Ball, 2008
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