All Africa, South Africa: Using Beaded Crafts to Talk About HIV/Aids, 15 September 2004

UN Integrated Regional Information Networks


Gender inequalities in rural South Africa have traditionally left women with no voice, but a group of female Zulu doll makers in the KwaZulu-Natal province are now speaking about HIV/AIDS through their craftwork.

The women are part of the Siyazama Project ('We are trying' in Zulu), an initiative that uses the Zulu craft of making beaded dolls to disseminate vital information about HIV/AIDS among rural women.

During their weekly doll-making sessions, the women are taught about the disease by doctors, traditional healers and HIV-positive people. They also receive information on nutrition, home-based care and treatment.

"Through such a straight-talk approach we want to break the silence surrounding the pandemic," explained Kate Wells, who runs the project. Getting the women to talk about HIV/AIDS and sex-related issues is difficult as they come from deep rural and poverty-stricken areas in the province.

"In the beginning it wasn't easy to get them to listen," admitted Wells. "There was lots of giggling during the sessions, and when the women started to spread the information in their homes some were beaten up by their husbands." One man pulled his wife by her hair across the street after she suggested the use of condoms, said Wells.

For many of these women, participating in the project was their first opportunity to receive information about HIV/AIDS that was not gossip or rumour.

A few months into the project, however, when large numbers of people in rural areas in KwaZulu Natal started dying, the craftswomen began to gain the respect of their communities. "The Siyazama women are not silenced anymore," said Wells.

The more the crafters learn about HIV/AIDS, the more the issue becomes visible in their craftwork. The women construct complex tabloids of beaded Zulu dolls that imitate scenes of domestic violence, virginity testing, child abuse, rape and home-based care.

Celani Nojiyeza from Ndwedwe is currently working on a tabloid dealing with child abuse, a pressing concern in her community.

"Not long ago my neighbour found out that he was HIV-positive and, hence, sexually abused his own child in the belief this could cure him," she said. Nojiyeza hopes her doll will help to dispel this myth.

Although the project, which was initiated by the Graphic Design department of the Durban Institute of Technology, only reaches a small group of crafters, the women are spreading the knowledge gained during their meetings.

"They share it with their sisters and daughters, who then share it with their neighbours and friends and so on," Wells said.

Lobolile Ximba from Mzinga, one of the first rural crafters to join Siyazama, first learned about HIV/AIDS during a craft-making workshop. Although she found it very difficult to talk openly about it in the beginning, she now freely talks about the disease and spreads the message in her home community, she told PlusNews.

Wells conducted a survey of 70 women related to the project and found that the crafters and their peers felt they were well informed about the disease, and that their lives had improved as a result of this knowledge.

Sibongile Khumalo's story (not her real name) illustrated the positive impact of the project when she admitted throwing out her daughter-in-law after she developed AIDS, thinking this would rid her family of the disease.

It was only during the weekly sessions at Siyazama that she came to understand how the disease was transmitted. She now speaks openly about it in her community and is regarded as the local sex education expert.

Since last year, the women have been discussing issues related to antiretroviral therapy (ART) with the Ithembalabantu Clinic in Umlazi, a township near Durban.

"We wanted to make headway through the myths and misconceptions that abound, most especially amongst rural populations," explained Wells.

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This has been reflected in the women's craftwork - they started creating beaded "ART reminders" and beaded bracelets with pill motifs to remind people on treatment about the importance of adhering to the regimen. Some of the crafts will be shown to patients in the Ithembalabantu Clinic.

The project also has economic advantages said Wells. "The sales of their craftworks means economic empowerment, which in turn leads to an empowered role and influence in their community."




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