AIDS AND THE AFRICAN

AIDS AND THE AFRICAN

 

Rape victim: 'I felt myself drowning'

 

                  By Wil Haygood, Boston Globe Staff, 10/11/99

 

                  SOWETO, South Africa - Her day started beautifully.

 

                  Portia Moalusi was out for a stroll with her boyfriend. They were holding

                  hands, chatting, smiling, just strolling around this old epic-sized township on

                  the outskirts of Johannesburg. It was a Sunday this past June.

 

                  "I saw two people walking,'' she says. "I thought they were lovers. When I

                  started to turn a corner, they approached me with guns.''

 

                  She's sitting in a clinic here, meeting with her doctor.

 

                  She goes on:

 

                  "I said, `What do you want? I can give you my necklace.'''

 

                  The gun-wielding couple - immediately joined by another male - didn't want

                  her necklace. Moalusi's boyfriend was told, at gunpoint, to flee. He did.

 

                  She was hustled into a car. She was blindfolded. Her heart pounded. The

                  car came to a halt. It was at the edge of a river.

 

                  Moalusi knew what the men wanted. The woman helped hold her down.

 

                  "Before they started raping me, they pushed my head into the water,'' she

                  says. "I felt myself drowning.''

 

                  Her doctor, Mary Jane Kumasamba - who has heard some evil tales of

                  crime and rape while working as a doctor here - grimaces. There were deep

                  genital bruises on Moalusi when the doctor first examined her.

 

                  "We were shocked by the story,'' the doctor says. "This is like Sodom and

                  Gomorrah.''

 

                  Portia Moalusi is 29 years old. She's single and unemployed. She has

                  close-cropped hair and small hands, which she keeps folding and unfolding in

                  her lap.

 

                  "I told myself I would cooperate because they told me they would kill me,''

                  Moalusi says about her abductors.

 

                  She said she was repeatedly raped by the men, and recalls quite vividly the

                  words of the last man who attacked her. "After he raped me, he said to me,

                  `I've got something to tell you. I'm HIV-positive.' I was in shock.''

 

                  A rape occurs every 26 seconds in South Africa, the highest rate of rape in

                  the world, and the country's rate of 1,600 HIV infections per day is also the

                  highest in the world, more than 14 times greater than in the United States.

                  While there are no numbers relating the astonishing AIDS figures in South

                  Africa directly to rape, no one denies that sexual assaults are adding to the

                  problem significantly.

 

                  On this afternoon, Portia Moalusi is waiting for HIV test results at a clinic on

                  the grounds of the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital. The clinic deals with

                  rape and child abuse cases. Moalusi and her doctor have agreed to let a

                  reporter sit in while they wait.

 

                  When Moalusi came to the clinic, Dr. Kumasamba did something she was

                  not supposed to do: She opened the anti retro-viral "starter kit'' she keeps in

                  the clinic - in case any staff member is exposed to blood - and gave it to

                  Moalusi. The starter kit consists of two potent drugs that if given immediately

                  can often halt the virus in its tracks. In giving the medicine to Moalusi,

                  Kumasamba left herself and the clinic without any of the drug. "I knew I was

                  going to be in trouble,'' she says, "but there was a life to save.''

 

                  Kumasamba has two large spiral notebooks. They detail the date of all

                  reported rapes and the names of the victims. They also report the results of

                  the AIDS tests for those who were raped. More than half are given the

                  dreadful news that they are HIV-positive.

 

                  There is a police officer on duty 24 hours a day at the clinic. Kumasamba's

                  job is dangerous. When the police arrest someone, she often testifies on

                  behalf of rape victims, going eye to eye with the accused in the courtroom.

                  But the police have so far made no arrests in Portia's rape.

 

                  After an hour-long wait, the sounds of clicking heels can be heard coming

                  down the hallway. The door opens.

 

                  "The results are negative,'' says Sally Mbulaheni, a nurse, who is allowing

                  herself a smile as she reports the news.

 

                  The doctor hugs Moalusi. "You made it,'' the doctor says. Moalusi covers

                  her face in her hands, overcome with emotion. "I'm so happy,'' she says.

 

                  " It's a victory for us,'' Kumasamba says.

 

                  The doctor couldn't bear - at least in Moalusi's presence - to talk about

                  reality. The reality is that Moalusi's first test results, while gratifying, could

                  take a bitter turn. It can take up to six months after an infection for the virus

                  to be detected. "She might still be positive,'' the doctor would say.

 

                  Later in the afternoon of the day she received her test results, Moalusi,

                  standing in front of her home, twirled like a little child. Then she vanished

                  with something approaching happiness on h