An eighth-grade teenager shows how funky and strong her fight against a four-letter word is. Mia Malan reports.
As on every school morning, eighth graders Bianca, Samantha and Khanya meet at Samantha’s locker.
There was a lot to talk about before their economic studies final this morning. The late Michael Jackson’s new CD had been released and the songs were downloadable from their cellphones. “But Bianca had one of her blondest moments ever!” shrieks Khanya. “She kept on pressing the wrong button! We showed her the right one, but she didn’t want to listen to us —Then the bell rang and Bianca had to tragically start her day without the coolest song ever —”
When the three girls went off to class to write the exam Bianca couldn’t get the tune of Beat It out of her head. She couldn’t wait for break time. She just had to get it on to her phone.
I first met Bianca Gordon* when she was five years old. She had no idea that there was anything different about her, other than the fact that she had to drink a handful of ‘vitamin pills” — as she knew them then — each morning. “This one makes me feel sick, this one’s all right and that one tastes bad!” she would explain in matter-of-fact style. Back then her favourite song was Aqua’s I’m a Barbie Girl. She’d dance and shake her cute little braids to the tune and end with a bow to signal that she was ready for a round of applause. “Thank you! Thank you!” she’d yell, waving her arms in slow motion to me and the countless imaginary people in the audience. “I love you all!” She’d blow us kisses and, before walking off the “stage”, smile and announce: “I — Bianca — I’m a Barbie Girl — in a Barbie World!”
Ten years later she’s just shy of 16. Her youthful face looks virtually the same, her braids are as charming and her Barbie Girl smile is still contagious.
But Bianca has a secret that makes her different from her friends. It’s the one that obliges her to drink down a daily handful of pills that make her feel dizzy and nauseous — and keep her alive. The four-letter word everyone in her school knows, but few talk about, is Aids.
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Bianca’s HIV-infected mother, Elizabeth, passed the virus on to her — either during birth or breastfeeding, no one knows, because she was never monitored. In 1994, when Bianca was born at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, Elizabeth wasn’t offered any information on how to prevent her baby from becoming infected. “I only got information about TB. They didn’t mention that there was anything I could do to help Bianca,” she says. “As a result, I infected my daughter without knowing it.”
Bianca’s father died shortly after her birth without him ever acknowledging he had HIV.
“I don’t blame my mom or my dad. I don’t blame anyone,” Bianca says, while brushing her hair at her dressing table in her room in Sunnyside, Pretoria. “You know, you just get the feel of it and it becomes part of you in a way. Then you have to live it and understand it. It’s almost like a cold. You just get used to it.”
But living with Aids as a teenager isn’t like having a cold.
Bianca can’t talk to her school mates in the upper-middle-class Pretoria high school she attends about the illness she’s lived with her whole life. In fact, she’s terrified that they’ll find out. “There are children who won’t accept it. They won’t understand and will be scared of me. I don’t want people to be scared of me,” she whispers.
As only a few teachers at her school know she’s HIV-infected, she can’t explain her fears, particularly during exams.
“A few years ago, we were writing exams, I think I was in grade four,” she tells us while paging through one of her school books.
“I took my pills the night before and was still feeling dizzy. It was one of the subjects I hate — maths. I’m sitting there thinking: ‘I’m going to fail; I’m going to fail.’ And the thought of me failing and the after effects of the tablets caused me to throw up on my exam paper. The teacher had no idea why — and I couldn’t tell —”
Of her school mates, only two know about her secret —Samantha and Khanya. The latter found out only recently, when Bianca told her in matter-of-fact style over a Coke in McDonald’s that she had a virus called HI in her body — as though she was describing an exam paper that went wrong. “I didn’t notice anything different about Bianca,” Khanya recalls. “There were no signs anywhere that she had HIV — she looks just like us. So, I’m a little surprised, but not shocked. But the one thing that did come to mind when she told me is that she’s absent from school a lot. I did wonder why she was sick so often —”
Samantha, Bianca’s best friend, has known about her condition since they were in grade one. But only recently has she come to understand what HIV infection means. “I think Bianca’s mom spoke to my mom and my mom explained to me how it worked. When we started life orientation classes this year in high school I found out the true nature of what Bianca had and that you could get the virus through sex, blood or from an infected parent at birth.”
“It says a lot about Samantha that she’s still my friend,” Bianca chips in. “It’s really easy to trust her.”
“Ag,” says Samantha while patting her friend on the shoulder. “You’re older now and you’re a lot goofier!” Samantha looks at Khanya and winks. “One thing you have to love about Bianca is that her personality keeps growing and she always makes a bad situation sound good!”
Antiretroviral drugs have kept both this teenager and her mother alive and relatively healthy. But it hasn’t been easy. The drugs have to be taken at the same time every day to be effective. Bianca takes her medication at nine at night, so that she can go straight to bed afterwards and not have to walk around suffering the side-effects: dizziness and hot flushes. “I hate them, of course!” she says. “But what can I say? I have to take them. I just try to sleep through the dizziness.”
Waking in the mornings, she walks around, washes her face and looks for “something to cool me down so I don’t get too dizzy”.
Often Bianca feels so bad that she can’t go to school. “I’m absent at least once or twice a week, sometimes the entire week, and then I miss a lot of work. I’m always making up stories about why I’m absent — sometimes I’m just too tired to wake up.”
Like her two best friends, Bianca often thinks about the future. She has dreams, just like any other high-school teenager. “At first I wanted to be an archaeologist. But now, I want to be a sort of counsellor, like a psychologist. I like listening to people —”
She gets too tired when playing netball, but swimming has been different. “The water cools me down, it cools the hot flushes!” At Bianca’s school’s most recent gala, she won all the races in her age group. “She’s a champion swimmer and everyone wants to be in her relay team,” Samantha says, laughing.
Bianca has a four-year-old HIV-negative sister. In 2005, when Kelly was born, things were very different for Elizabeth. She became pregnant, knowing that she could have an HIV-negative baby, as information about mother-to-child-prevention had become widely available. Both Elizabeth and Kelly were given antiretroviral preventative drugs and Elizabeth was advised not to breastfeed. “That gives me hope that maybe I will also be able to have kids one day,” Bianca says. “I want a cute one, like my sister!” She smiles as she strokes her fingers through her sister’s hair. “But I do wonder what I will tell them. Surely they would want to know what disease their mom’s got —”
Back at school Bianca suspects she’s not the only child who has to deal with HIV. She’s certainly not the face of Aids as South Africans know — or choose to know — it. She’s not poor, she doesn’t live in a shack and she doesn’t get her ART from a dilapidated public hospital. On the contrary, Bianca lives in a comfortable suburban house. She gets her medication — promptly — every month from her mother’s private medical insurance scheme. Nonetheless, she doesn’t presume she’s alone. “I do think there are other HIV-infected children at school with me. After all, if we are on medication, we look exactly the same as the HIV-negative children.”
The school bell rings for break and Bianca, Khanya and Samantha rush to meet one another. “Have you downloaded the song?” Khanya asks Bianca. “Not yet, I could hardly concentrate on the exam paper!”
Khanya offers to help: “Give your phone here; I’ll do it for you.” Soon Bianca has a copy of Beat it! on her new cellphone. She plugs in her headphones and starts listening to it, her body moving to the beat of the song, her braids bouncing up and down — exactly like they did 10 years ago. “I love it!” she exclaims and puts her arm around Khanya. “Thanks, Kan. You’re the best.”
Hand in hand, the three friends go off for a quick snack at a local fast-food joint before starting to study for the next day’s biology paper.
Bianca and I say goodbye and she says: “You’ve got to move on and live. You can’t be afraid!” Waving to me over her shoulder, she pauses and smiles. “I think I take after my dad — my mom says he loved dancing too.”
* Names have been changed
Mia Malan is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bhekisisa. She has worked in newsrooms in Johannesburg, Nairobi and Washington, DC, winning more than 30 awards for her radio, print and television work.