Where football and HIV/AIDS treatment meet: voices from pitches in Bulawayo

The 2010 FIFA World Cup is in its final stage and the excitement in Southern Africa is still palpable even in Zimbabwe where I work as a nurse for Médecins Sans Frontières  in an HIV/AIDS treatment project,  north of host nation South Africa. It’s an excitement that has not been dampened despite the disappointment of Ghana’s Black Stars are now out of the running. Seeing as this is the first time I’ve written a blog I was stuck with the inevitable “where do I start?’ dilemma. But a discussion with our outreach staff and information, education and communication (IEC) department set me on a journey into understanding how our patients view the topic of HIV relating to soccer. As it turns out, one of the many IEC activities that MSF carries out in Bulawayo is to support the monthly recreational activities hosted by the HIV peer support groups. There are a total of 145 support groups in Bulawayo, which meet weekly. And once a month, all the districts (made up of ten support groups each), meet and play football and netball together. MSF provides logistical and material support, which includes the supply of soccer balls, refreshments, transport, and a first aid kit. We also facilitate an empowerment program for focal persons in the support groups. So, last week I decided to go along and meet everybody and hear their thoughts on HIV, football and the World Cup. These are their stories: Shedias, peer support group leader: Shedias was treated for tuberculosis in 2002 and also tested HIV positive. “Being HIV positive is like a game of football: you either win or lose. I take it as winning. By working as a team and living positively we can beat HIV. One of the key players is the goalkeeper, he stops HIV from scoring! Soccer is a fast game, it moves fast like HIV but by playing soccer we can also spread important messages about HIV by networking and sharing stories,” says Shedias. Junior, peer support group leader: Junior tested HIV positive in 2006 and started the Victory support group which now comprises 59 members. They do candle-making, make peanut butter and all have vegetable gardens in their backyards. The money they receive from selling these items helps pay for their children’s school fees, medications to treat opportunistic infections (these medications are not always available and they have to buy them at private pharmacies). “Antiretrovirals (ARVs) are the defenders in the game of soccer. They stop re-infection and help us to have a stress-free life,” Junior says. Dick, peer support group member: Dick tested HIV positive in 2009 and started ARVs in January 2010. He has been a Level 3 soccer coach for twelve years and has helped develop a boys’ team to make it to the national level. He then became sick and started to withdraw from his involvement in football. He has recently disclosed his status, which has helped with his adherence to taking his ARV drugs. His family members now remind him that it is time to take his treatment Now that he is beginning to feel better, he wants to become more involved in football again. I found the experiences of talking to people who are open and living positively with HIV incredibly inspiring and real. It makes me think that HIV is not only about receiving ARVs, but also about being able to conquer the mental aspect of this disease. Joanne Sage is an Australian nurse working with MSF in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Joanne joined the MSF in 2004, and has also worked in Sudan and Ethiopia.
About World Cup feature World Cup feature is an internet blogging experience with first account stories of field workers and staff of  international humanitarian medical organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) conducted during the FIFA World Cup in South Africa, from June 7th to July 14th, 2010. The main objective of World Cup feature is to provide the worldwide audience an alternate view on the first FIFA World Cup in the African soil and to share positive chronicles of the Southern African region’s struggle to fight the dual epidemics of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. World Cup feature will include narrative, still pictures and short videos coming from countries where MSF field workers provide care to people suffering from HIV and tuberculosis, from Malawi, South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and other places in the world. HALFTIME!, a one-day HIV positive patients soccer tournament organised by MSF in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 2nd, will also be featured. Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the World Cup feature are those of the authors or the persons interviewed and can not be considered or quoted as MSF’s official position on the matters concerned.