If joy was a color, it would be yellow.
After living in South Africa for seven months, I experienced an overflow of joy in the yellowing eyes of my friend, Siyanda Mbebe.
Siya, as her friends call her, is a radiant, yet frail 28-year-old victim of HIV. She lives in The Dignity House, an around-the-clock hospice center, in the heart of balmy East London, South Africa. I spent hours in the company of this charming yet shrinking woman, gleaning from her the stories of a happy Xhosan tribal childhood in rural South Africa. I spent time listening to her as she mounted her soapbox on the political and socioeconomic status of her homeland, as well as her hopes and fears for its future. I heard stories of laughter and innocent childhood memories, as well as tales about the broken history of the “beautiful rainbow nation” during the struggles of the Apartheid era.
As much as there was joy in Siya’s eyes and words, the tragedy of her life and her homeland could not be ignored. Siya contracted HIV from a previous boyfriend, who neglected to tell her of his HIV positive status. She realized he was the carrier when she learned of his death a few years later. As a result of this, Siya only found out in 2002 that she was HIV positive. She pointed out that “the date you are tested is not necessarily the same date that the virus was planted. You may have been living with it for two years. The virus hides itself and you don’t see it immediately.”
Unfortunately this is an all too common problem in South Africa. Being HIV positive carries with it an undeniable stigma and responsibility. As soon as you “out” yourself with HIV positive status, you become an outcast. Also, if you choose to take anti-retroviral (ARV) treatment (which does not cure, but simply sustains life), you must make a commitment to continue the treatment daily for the duration of your life because as soon as you stop taking the ARVs, your health will take a downward spiral for the worst, often resulting in death. Along with the responsibility of daily doses, there is the cost of medication (in Siya’s case her treatment is provided at no cost by the Sophumelela AIDS Clinic) as well as the abhorrent side effects, which can include: nausea and vomiting, “pins and needles” in the legs, headaches, skin rashes, stomach discomfort, nightmares, fatigue and diarrhea.
As a result, many people have a fear of testing. Some would rather not know they’re HIV positive. In fact, people have told Siya she’s brave for knowing, because it’s easier not to know. There’s too much reality and responsibility that comes with knowing.
“It makes people objectify me,” Siya says. “They don’t see me as a person, but as an illness. They won’t touch me because they are afraid they will contract the disease. HIV is transferred from fluid to fluid, not from touch to touch, or conversation to conversation. My family sees me as a burden, and they don’t take care of me. When I am lying in pain, no one will rub ointment on my feet. When I mess myself, it takes several hours before anyone notices. And even when they do, they ask, ‘Why did you do this to yourself?’ I feel like a burden.”
As devastating as it is to feel ostracized by your own family, HIV also affects every other area of life. I vividly recall the first conversation I had with Siya about her dreams. It broke my heart, and it was all I could do to hide the tears warming in my eyes because as she shared her dreams I realized we had so much in common. She wants to travel the world, to see the diversity of life and creation. We are women of the same age, and our shared longing in life is to love and be loved. But for Siya, she lives under the black cloud of HIV. “Will a man ever look past my status to see me for who I am? What about bearing children? Even if my body was capable, I wouldn’t want to bring a sick child into this world.”
There’s something deeply profound about seeing people for who they are. Maybe it’s because God created us to be in communion with one another, or maybe it’s because it takes so much vulnerability to look beyond someone’s skin color or socioeconomic status or HIV label. But making that connection with Siya over the course of hours and hours spent with her for six weeks made something very clear to me: We are human. We have the capacity to love. We have the capacity to hope. We have the capacity to hurt for the hurting, to cry with the broken, to love the unlovable, to touch the untouchable, to sing with the tone-deaf, to write with the illiterate, to dance with the immobile and to befriend the friendless. We have the capacity to see others as we were intended to see them—as human beings—to value them as God values them, to love them as Christ loves them.
Siya is my friend first. And then, and only then, she is also someone living a life ravaged by a disease that colors our world with pain, suffering, torment, abandonment, and untimely death.
And even now, separated by thousands of miles and countries and time zones, she is my friend and she has left a smile in the hollow of my heart.
“God knows that I dream of going overseas,” Siya told me during one of our visits. “And because this condition is impacting my possibility to do so, He has sent you to me. You’ve seen the world, and now you’ve brought the world to me.”
During our last heart-wrenching hours together in South Africa, Siya gave me an incredible gift. “Bethany, I am grateful for your friendship, and I want to give you the name Siyabonga, which means increased gratefulness. You have come to spend time with me and have become my friend. You have seen me as a person. Not as someone with a positive HIV status. Thank you.”
Siya lives life with joy, despite her circumstances, and with strength, despite her weaknesses. She may very well be robbed of life at a young age by tuberculosis (TB) or pneumonia because of the impact that HIV has had on her body, but ultimately this disease will not conquer her. It will not put out that yellow beaming light of joy because in her own words Siya says: “I am not sick. I have been healed through my faith in Christ. This is just a condition that torments my body, but it does not affect my spirit. My spirit is strong. My spirit is powerful. My spirit is invincible.”
I don’t know about you, but I want her yellow joy.
*For more information about the Dignity House or the Sophumelela AIDS Clinic, please visit: www.fightingaidsinafrica.co.za
Bethany Anderson is a 29-year old freelance missionary and writer, who has lived and worked among the richest of the rich in Ornex, France and Geneva, Switzerland, and among the poorest of the poor in East London and Cape Town, South Africa. She is passionate about seeing our world changed through hope, grace, love and friendship. She currently lives out of her suitcases in McKinney, Texas, and as of July will be residing in Sydney, Australia.
For more, check out her website: www.jbethanyanderson.com