SUDAN: Stephen's story
Stephen and his siblings
JOHANNESBURG, 22 October (PLUSNEWS) - On a recent Sunday, after the sermon in the Episcopal Church of Sudan (ECS) in Yambio County in the Western Equatorial region of southern Sudan, a letter was read. One of the church priests, Pastor Henri Wandu, was seriously ill and asked his congregation to pray for him and his wife.
When the letter revealed the cause of his illness, a ripple of shock ran through the church-goers. Pastor Wandu and his wife were HIV-positive.
According to Mary Biba, Yambio County secretary for the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), Wandu is the second person to disclose his HIV status - but as a prominent figure in the community, he is the first to do so in such a public manner.
Wandu was too weak to write the letter. "I'm the one who wrote the letter. He dictated it to me and then I had to take it to church on Sunday," his 17-year-old son Stephen told PlusNews.
Asked what he thought of his father's decision to disclose his status, Stephen answered shyly: "I think he is very brave. He decided not to hide it so he could help and advise other people - but I'll always be sorry that he is sick."
Stephen admitted he was frightened when his father told him about his status. "At first I was crying, but now I believe God will support us."
He was surprised by the reaction of his fellow church-goers. "People were whispering and looking at me when the pastor read it. But afterwards they came here (the family compound) to congratulate him for taking that step and gave him advice."
Stigma has not reared its ugly head – yet. "They can't treat him badly, he is their preacher. They are just sorry for him," Stephen added.
When PlusNews arrived in Yambio, Wandu had received some financial assistance from community members and had left a few days earlier to seek treatment in Uganda.
Uganda is one of a growing number of African countries offering antiretroviral (ARV) treatment in the public health sector and, with up to 10,000 people receiving ARVs, has become the leading ARV user on the continent.
Wandu was also exploring other options. "We heard about a certain Ugandan woman who has discovered a medicine that helps. If this is not possible, then he will visit a certain doctor who is healing people," Stephen explained.
When his family fled to the Central African Republic (CAR) in 1990 during Sudan's long civil war, Stephen was only four years old. "My father told me that life was very difficult for us because it was not our land, we were not free."
At that time, Wandu had two wives: Stephen's mother, who died while they were still in CAR, and a second wife whom he later divorced. He then married his third wife, Mary, who is also HIV-positive.
The family's joy at returning to a relatively stable part of southern Sudan in 2000 was short-lived. "When my father got sick for the first time it was very serious. In 2001, we only cultivated our land with our step-mother because he was too sick to help us," Stephen said.
In 2002, Wandu was again in poor health and was eventually taken to the Dutch relief agency, Zuid Oost Azie Refugee Care (ZOA). The NGO had a few testing kits available and conducted an HIV test.
ZOA is about to embark on a voluntary testing and counselling campaign in Yambio, and is also in the process of training several local counsellors.
Meanwhile, Stephen, a high-school student, has been left to take care of his three younger siblings: Anice, Joseph and Rebecca. The family compound is also home to the children from the pastor's previous marriages and several other family members he had been looking after.
Anxious faces emerged from one of the family tukuls (round huts) when PlusNews arrived, as there still had been no word about the pastor's arduous road trip in the back of a van to Kampala.
Although the community had rallied behind Wandu and his family when they heard about his status, the family is receiving fewer and fewer visitors now.
"People are moving on with life and we must also do [the same]," Stephen said, shrugging his shoulders. Pointing to Joseph and Rebecca, who were playing a game of catch around one of the tukuls, he added: "If they are now playing and carrying on, then we will be able to cope."
Dressed in a red t-shirt and casual black trousers, he looked like any other young person – not a breadwinner and head of a household.
Despite his uncertainty over how his tuition will be paid, Stephen is determined to finish school - but he is under no illusions about what lies ahead for him and his family.
"I know there is still a lot of suffering, but we are not going to be stranded. Even if we survive by cutting firewood and selling it, we are going to try our level best," he vowed.
Stephen has been moved by his father's decision to go public with his status and intends helping other young people in similar situations.
He is in charge of his youth group's drama and song projects, and reads his poems during AIDS awareness events held by the group.
"It's important that I help other children in the world. I've experienced it, that's why I can talk with courage," he said.
When told that with correct medication and diet, people living with HIV/AIDS can live long, productive lives, Stephen slowly nodded his head.
"When he told me he was HIV-positive he gave me a lot of advice. If he comes back well, he will be able to tell people how they can live," he said.