A fortnight into my stay in South Africa, I was driving with Shwele, the Medical Co-ordinator to visit a patient.
I had developed enormous respect and affection for Shwele. She was so caring towards the patients who lived in the community and dedicated to their wellbeing.
We had worked together for the majority of my time in South Africa and though I had experienced working in clinics, running HIV education classes and many other projects, I enjoyed the home visits the most.
During these visits I was checking patient histories, weights, testing blood pressure, blood sugars and carrying out physiotherapy exercises.
I think I enjoyed them because it was opportunity to get to know the patients. To work out how to help them in ways that they would be able to maintain.
One day we visited a young man we’ll call Joshua for a physio session. He was a former security guard who years before, was shot in the back and lost the use of his legs. On the day we went to see him, we spoke about how he was feeling and commented that he felt a pain in his feet.
Shwele and I looked at one another as realisation spread across our faces. A short time later, Joshua was sat at the edge of his bed, the handles of his wheelchair facing him, while I knelt on the seat as a counter weight and Shwele held his waist.
We then watched as for the first time in years, pressing on the wheelchair seat handles, he stood up.
Despite events like this, I sometimes felt, as the only volunteer without a medical background, that she may have wondered why I had come.
I was able to keep up. I could carry out the procedures and for the work we were required to do, I knew enough. But I was not and am not a nurse or paramedic.
Her response took me by surprise therefore when one day, as we drove off-road through the Zulu community, skirting along the side of a wood across a grass plain, I asked her if I was doing alright.
‘Shwele thought i was wonderful’
She turned to look at me, while still driving at a solid 50 miles an hour across the grassland. She looked at me thoughtfully and told me that she thought I was wonderful.
My eyes widened slightly. Not least because she was still looking at me while hurtling perilously close to a line of very solid looking trees.
Shwele finally turned back in the direction the car was travelling. She proceeded to tell me that I was natural with the patients, that it was obvious that I cared, that I was gentle and explained things clearly. She smiled at me and told me the patients thought I was a doctor.
Shwele told me she thought I was very brave and respected my courage. That was the last straw. For this woman, whom I respected, to tell me that she thought I was doing well. That she respected me at a time in my life when I was full of doubt. That was more than I could bear.
I turned to look out of the window as a wave of emotion rose within me. Several minutes passed before I was able to speak again.
I asked about Shwele’s family and how many children she had. She told me proudly she had three children and proceeded to tell me about her boy who was enjoying school and her daughter who enjoyed music.
She briefly went quiet then, before telling me about her third child, who had died at only a few years old. What struck me most deeply was how proudly she said she had three.
I looked at her and realised how I admired her strength and between us a mutual respect developed.
‘She gave them hope’
Her approach when faced with patients in dire situations was to give people hope, often she would speak with them about their faith.
She was able to recognise when, with limited equipment, resource and supplies, the most important thing was to make the patient comfortable, even if only spiritually.
I realised while working with her, that what I needed was spiritual comfort.
The reason it had taken me ten years to make this trip was not simply because of the synchronicity of a marking a decade living with HIV. It was because, for the best part of those ten years, I had needed to heal myself.
After my HIV diagnosis in 2006, I was confused, hurt and angry, but at 20, completely unable to process it.
I contracted HIV after a man I was seeing, who had omitted to tell me he was positive, tampered with contraceptives.
Unable to do anything, my anger, frustration and pain turned inwards, I felt unsafe, scared and isolated. As a result my world became much smaller.
Working with people diagnosed with HIV there in South Africa, though our experience was vastly different, I recognised the inward feelings of shame were the same. The feelings of isolation and a sense of being somehow different, the stigma in it’s varying degrees was universal.
‘I often felt inadequate’
Even before my diagnosis I often felt inadequate and compared myself with others. Certainly far more than I should. In truth, even now I have less difficulty accepting what I am, than in accepting what I am not.
Working in South Africa was the first time in a very long while that I had not felt like a failure.
It contributed to a growing realisation that the only thing holding me back was myself and the sense that I had limited myself and my hopes for my future.
That evening, back at the volunteer house, alone in my room, I cried. Not because I was sad or unhappy in any way. But because I realised how hard I had been on myself.
I learned that embracing my fears was an incredible way to learn new things about myself.
I realised that I needed to affirm myself and I could only do that alone. Without relying on the affirmation of others.
‘There was something I needed to do’
My time on the project was coming to an end and amid the last round of home visits and clinic runs, there was something I needed to do.
Before I had left the UK I had spent time fundraising and gathering medical supplies.
The kit was donated to the project to be used as needed. But the money we had agreed to use in the best way, in agreement, at the end of the trip.
Among smaller donations for ongoing costs, there were three main projects we funded. The first was to seal and weatherproof the house of the first patient I visited. The elderly lady with breast cancer.
We knew she didn’t have long, but it felt important to make sure that, however long she did have, she spent comfortably.
The second was to pay for the funeral costs of a young patient whose brothers and sisters could not afford a burial.
The third, was for Joshua. My last home visit was to him. He had been practicing standing and we had added strengthening exercises for his legs. We went to see him and gave him a walking frame.
‘All he needed to do for me, was keep trying. I promised I would do the same.’
He cried, Shwele cried, I cried. He hugged and thanked me and I told him it was unnecessary. I told him that all he needed to do for me, was keep trying. I promised I would do the same.
Being there, working in South Africa and doing things I never thought I could do, was the beginning.
A short while later, as I arrived back in the UK, I realised how different I felt.
I knew changes were coming, but, perhaps for the first time, I wasn’t worried, I knew I could manage.
Having embraced what I was afraid of, I found reserves of strength, resilience and hope.
I had been on quite a journey in South Africa. The trip that had captured so many of the changes in my life. It was clear I was nearer now to arriving at a place of self-acceptance.
I knew I had further to go, but for now at least, I had arrived in the right area.