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SOUTH AFRICA: Clowning around boosts HIV-positive children

The children rehearse their moves
KHAYELITSHA, 29 October 2010 (PlusNews) - Shrieks of laughter echo through the community centre in the Cape Town township of Khayelitsha as 20 children aged between four and 15 play a game of tag.

They are part of the Cirque du Monde Ibhongolwethu Project run by Cape Town's Zip Zap Circus School with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Through twice weekly workshops, HIV-positive children are taught circus-act skills such as the trampoline, tumbling and juggling.

For the past 18 months, the sessions have included discussions with MSF's Youth Officer, Brian Mbanga, who addresses the challenges the children face. From the difficulties and side-effects of taking daily antiretroviral medication (ARVs), to problems at home or school and general health issues, the sessions provide the children with a regular opportunity to express their worries.

"The average [HIV positive] kid goes once a month to the clinic. Sometimes the parents go on behalf of the children to fetch the medication, so the child never has the opportunity to voice... frustrations with treatment," Mbanga told IRIN/PlusNews, adding that the project also helped the children adhere to ARV treatment.

The Zip Zap Circus, founded in 1992 by Brent van Rensburg, has reached more than 1,000 children with free instruction in circus skills and many have made careers as performers, dancers, stunt people, and instructors.

Offering hope

In addition to building up the children's physical strength and confidence, and giving them new skills, the Ibhongolwethu Project workshops help them to feel part of a community.

"It's very nice to be here where I can be with other kids who are also HIV-positive," said Athi Ngwane, 12. "[If not for Zip Zap] I would feel like I'm the only one who is HIV-positive, that there aren't any other HIV kids."

"I like Zip Zap because it helps me control my body. Also I feel like the other kids here are important for me. If I was outside, I think I might do something wrong like stealing or smoking," said Musa Berend, 10.

''I feel like the other kids here are important for me. If I was outside, I think I might do something wrong like stealing or smoking''
Mbanga said the children who participate in the project are not just physically stronger than those he sees at clinics, but also emotionally more resilient. "These kids come from very poor homes, some parents have died, or they're living with sick relatives, so to be able to meet in a place like this with other kids in this atmosphere - it really boosts their self-esteem.

"They have a deep understanding of HIV; they've accepted their status, and they in some way encourage other kids who live with HIV in their communities who haven't come out yet to do the same," he added.

The day's rehearsal over, the children wash their hands before sitting down for the meal that closes each workshop. "When I tell my friends what I'm doing they say 'Wow, that's cool'. They wish to be here, [but] I tell them 'You can't be here because you are not having what the children here are having. We are HIV positive'. I feel okay about that, because I'm still the same," Ageobile Wyovane, 15, who is in his fourth year with the project, told IRIN/PlusNews.

High prevalence

Wyovane's acceptance of his HIV status is the chief criteria for inclusion in the programme. Khayelitsha has an HIV prevalence of about 30 percent among pregnant women, according to MSF, but Mbanga explained that many parents and caregivers in the township are reluctant to share a child's status, even with the child. "There are very few children who are even aware of their HIV status, very, very few; even the ones on ARVs. Some of the kids in this room only found out last year. For years they were under the impression that they had TB, or a long-lasting flu, or pneumonia."

The children are excitedly preparing for their annual performance at the Oliver Tambo Community Centre in Khayelitsha on World AIDS Day. The event attracts some 3,000 people and is designed to raise awareness about HIV, and to encourage acceptance and understanding in the community.

"[The audience] responds so well to the kids. For some people it's surprising how much they can do. For some it's so emotional to see these kids doing this. And for some, they don't even know what's going on - they just turn up and think 'What an amazing show'," said programme coordinator Tamryn Van Eyssen.

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Theme (s): Care/Treatment - PlusNews, Children, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), PWAs/ASOs - PlusNews,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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