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· Roddy Bray's Story-Letters from Southern Africa ·

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The Memory Box 'A Teams'

It was a grey and overcast morning the day we arrived in Masiphumelele to meet the "A Team''. 'Masi-P' is a few miles from where we live and is our closest township. Like townships across South Africa it presents a sprawling array of tin shacks and basic concrete structures, yet with a 'cool' vibe on the streets as children wave at cars, choir and kwaito music pulse and people wander the streets, greeting one another loudly. After all, there are 23,000 Xhosa people here and few of them have jobs.

For some time, my wife Rachel has conducted research work in Masiphumelele and has come to know Noxolo, Liziwe and other members of the ''A Team''. For those who grew up in the '80s the ''A Team'' may bring to mind Hannibal, a truck, Mr T and plenty of explosions. Our encounter with the 'Masi-P ''A Team'" was rather more poignant. Particularly following the birth of our daughter, Sarita Grace, two weeks earlier, it became a reflection for us on the journey from birth to death.

The ''A Team'' welcomed us warmly to the 'Pink House', a simple community centre in Masi-P. We squeezed into a small meeting room busily decorated with pictures- a family tree; simple portraits; journey maps. We slotted plastic chairs into the tiny space around the table.I am Noxolo, this is my self portrait and I want to say "don't talk behind me, come in front of me and discuss"

Noxolo lifted up a large cardboard box. She showed us a self portrait on one side and on two sides a chronology, written in felt-tip pen: her date of birth; when she moved to live with her grandmother; the date her granny died; when she left school; when her son and daughters were born; when she became weak and ill; when she had her first HIV test; when she disclosed her HIV status in public; when she began to receive medicine for repeated bouts of TB. On the fourth side of the box was written: 'Message to the Youth: 'Abstain and Condomise".

Noxolo pulled a book made from bound cardboard from inside the box. It was entitled 'My Story' and each page described, with drawings and details, those significant events in her life listed on the outside of the box. The book is dedicated to her children as a memorial, so they can read about her life after she has gone. She then pulled out a 'Journey Map' showing all the different places she has lived. Noxolo leafed through the book, pointing at the map, speaking in a frank, straightforward way about the course of her life.

She opened the box again and took out a poster she has made, urging 'the youth' to 'condomise', also a poem in praise of Nelson Mandela and a poster of Mandela with Zackie Achmat, leader of the HIV pressure group 'Treatment Action Campaign'. Noxolo returns to her cardboard book. On the final pages are tributes written by other members of the "A Team", describing her strengths; celebrating her character. She reads them out, bashfully, to the amusement of the others. Finally she shows us a poster called 'Statements' reading: 'don't be afraid of me, come and hug me' and 'I am a survivor, I will not lose hope'.

Noxolo speaks fluently, with humour and ease, but steadily the power of her story becomes penetrating. Her life has been difficult: from a young age she has shouldered heavy responsibilities; poverty has perished her dreams. She has coped with discovering she is HIV+ and is now experiencing the onset of full-blown AIDS and deteriorating health. She is unemployed and the mother of three.

Noxolo speaking about her memory boxAfter Noxolo's story Novangeli, Liziwe, Xolisa and Nomsa follow. Each shows us their Memory Box and tells their story. The boxes and books follow a similar form, although they are individual in style and, of course, content. They all speak of hardships and the crushing reality of HIV/ AIDS, but one is struck by the absence of self-pity or bitterness in any of them: they are people that have come to terms with their status. They have great dignity.

This group is part of the Memory Box Project. In April 2001 Jonathan Morgan, a clinical psychologist, was invited to start an HIV 'narrative therapy' programme at the University of Cape Town. He was aware of programmes pioneered in Uganda, which suffered a devastating AIDS pandemic in the '90s, where HIV+ groups wrote down their life stories and placed them, with other precious things, in a box to be kept for their children. Jonathan developed this concept and the project has grown rapidly and, with the help of the Ford Foundation, is spreading throughout Southern Africa.

The idea of the Memory Box, and the books, pictures and personal items it contains was, initially, a means to help people face terminal illness. In South Africa alone it is estimated that almost a quarter of all South Africans between the ages of 20 and 65 are HIV positive - about 5 million people. Without (expensive) drug therapies these people will die, painfully, over the coming years. Estimates suggest that there are likely to be two to three million children orphaned by the pandemic in South Africa. The Memory Box allows parents with HIV/ AIDS to come to terms with death and leave a personal legacy to their orphaned children. This helps the children grow up with a sense of identity and a personal legacy from their parents to help them overcome their own confusion and loss.

Memory Box Groups are also about living - not just about dying. The process of making boxes and books provides group therapy and establishes on-going mutual HIV support at a community level. From this base many AIDS victims develop the confidence to become HIV/ AIDS activists.& There are many ugly facets to the HIV pandemic and not the least of these is stigma. Stigma has created a taboo around HIV/ AIDS. The subject is avoided and sufferers fear that, if they are honest, they and their children will be ostracised. Many people would rather not find out their status or change their sexual behaviour lest it implies they are HIV+. Noxolo and the rest of the team challenge this insidious stigma. They have found that by creating their Memory Boxes in a private, supportive group, they have gained the confidence to be open about their status with their family. Some have even declared their HIV status publicly. Today - World AIDS Day - there will be public meetings in townships like Masiphumelele where brave people like Noxolo will speak at open rallies about their experience of HIV/ AIDS. It is hard, and may lead to ostracism, but they see it as the only way to break the denial and awkwardness that has characterised the spread of AIDS in South Africa (and evident in the attitude of senior government). Memory Box groups help people talk about the disease and develop the confidence to speak out in their communities.

Two members of the Masi-P 'A Team'The scale of the HIV pandemic presents a seemingly impossible challenge to counsellors - how can effective counselling, support and education be provided to so many people? Memory Box groups offer a solution. To expand and accelerate this process the Memory Box team raised money to employ post-graduates to facilitate more groups, but still the growth was too slow. So they devised the idea of '''A Team's'', like the one in Masiphumelele: Memory Box groups that are intensively trained in narrative therapy for a year and can then develop and lead new groups on their own, cutting out the need for 'experts' and leading to exponential growth. The various 'A Team's' that have already been trained now travel extensively throughout the region helping to start new groups.

As the work has progressed from its counselling roots, the Project has faced the practical needs of group members, as Jonathan Morgan has written: 'what HIV affected communities seemed to need more than more condoms or counselling or awareness raising etc, was money, jobs, hope, a sense of future'. Many people living with HIV/ AIDS find themselves as single parents, looking after orphans, as well as their own children, and all the time becoming weaker and poorer. So the '''A Teams'' are also tackling the economic aspects of AIDS: the Memory Box Project helps the groups to become profit-making co-operatives.

Often they look for AIDS related work. There is a very great deal of money in the 'AIDS Industry' most of which ends up in the hands of researchers, development workers, governments and drug companies. Very little comes to the people suffering from AIDS. So, the ''A Team's' are trained to tender for AIDS related contracts, including work as translators and research assistants, training and helping with surveys (the University of Michigan, for instance, is using A teams to help run a 10 year panel study in the Cape region).

In addition to research related work, the Masi-P "A Team" has decided to work with tourists. Their township is on the road to Cape Point - a million visitors drive past each year. Thus on the day we visited we also experienced the ''A Team' Township Tour'. After we had heard their Memory Box stories they led us around Masi-P. The tour was light-hearted, and about township life, not about HIV. They showed us a book they had made about the township and its people, and they took us to meet some interesting local characters…the man who has a rickety barber's shop on top of his shack, boasting 'the best view in Masi-P'; the Camera Man who takes portraits with an old Nikon camera in front of a tropical scene he has painted inside a shack (he also sells baseball caps!); women who make beads and traditional foods. I am hoping to help the team develop their tour - it has lots of potential.

The Memory Box project is a useful tool in helping orphans remember their parents, but it has become more than that. Across the region groups of HIV+ people are coming together through the Project, coming to terms with their illness, forming teams and receiving the training and support they need to start co-operative businesses and the confidence to disclose their status and inform their communities about the reality of AIDS.

If you would like to know more about the project, offer support or make a donation, do write to jmorgan@commerce.uct.ac.za or telephone + 27 (0)21 650 4659, or see the website www.uct.ac.za/depts/cssr/asru


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