Having endured the trauma of child labor and dating older men to raise her siblings, a HIV-positive woman now wants others to know that unconditional love, acceptance, and family are dreams within reach for anyone living with the same crippling diagnosis as hers.
Mandisa Dukashe and her husband, Siyabulela Dukashe, from Gauteng Province, South Africa, share two young daughters and one child each from previous relationships.
Talking to The Epoch Times, the couple said their blissful marriage has thrived for 18 long fulfilling years. However, Mandisa’s life story started out quite differently.
“I am the first child to go to varsity and was the only hope to take my family out of the shack,” Mandisa told The Epoch Times via email.
One of five siblings, Mandisa recalled her time growing up in the town of Kids Beach in the Eastern Cape. Her mother, a domestic worker, took her to live with her grandparents and 10 cousins in a rural village when she was 2 years old. Her father, a policeman, was killed on duty a year later, and her mother rejected her.
“I was very close to my grandmother,” Mandisa said. “She was a loving and caring lady … but because she had to raise 14 grandchildren, she couldn’t give any of us the attention we deserved.”
Mandisa said her abusive uncle often threatened to turf the kids onto the streets. At the age of 12, Mandisa dropped out of school to work at a local farm.
“The physical and emotional absence of my mother led me to drop out of school,” Mandisa said. “I also dated older men just to get money in order to send some to my siblings and also buy them school uniforms, which is something I can call sex work.”
Mandisa, who lived in a one-roomed shack, married a man nine years her senior in 1996.
“I took a decision to get married thinking I was securing a future. He had a job and was providing for me, which is what attracted me to him,” she said.
Mandisa gave birth to a son but tested positive for HIV six years into the marriage. Desperately unhappy, she left the marriage in January 2003.
“When I first heard of the diagnosis I thought it was the end of my life,” she said.
“I was doing 2nd year at the varsity and could see the light at the end of the tunnel. The news affected my academic performance for a year but thank God I completed the degree in record time.”
Then in the winter of 2003, a new chapter of life took her by surprise.
“It was a festive season,” Siyabulela recalled. “I saw her walking with her friends. I approached her telling her how much l loved her.”
“He loved me unconditionally, accepted me with my son from my marriage, and also declared his love for me despite my HIV diagnosis,” Mandisa said.
Siyabulela’s heartfelt love paid off; the couple eventually married in September 2007.
“There was nothing in my spirit that said let me discriminate or stigmatize her. We are all made in the image of God,” Siyabulela said. “God promotes love … the power of love that’s what keeps us moving.”
The reality of their mixed HIV status, however, hit the couple when they decided to have a child together. They opted for expensive intrauterine insemination and gave birth to a HIV-negative daughter in 2010.
When they were planning to conceive their second child, Mandisa started antiretroviral therapy (ART), rendering her HIV “undetectable.” She gave birth to a second HIV-negative daughter in 2014 while preserving her husband’s HIV-negative status to this day.
“She is part of me, I am part of her,” Siyabulela said. “I even thank God for blessing me, using her to give me these beautiful daughters. They’re apples of my eyes.”
Siyabulela said people with HIV-positive status need love and support.
“HIV is not a death sentence,” he said, adding the caveat that knowing your status is imperative.
“Do an HIV test. It is very important to engage in a relationship with a clear consciousness of what is happening regarding HIV,” he said.
To help others, Mandisa and Siyabulela started a nonprofit together, Zanoncedo Empowerment Center. Employing 100 volunteers with stipends, the center offers support services—including HIV testing and treatment advice—to 16 Eastern Cape villages as well as online support through its website.
Mandisa has been recognized by the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa for her nonprofit. She has written a book titled “As I Rise Above” to share her story of triumph over adversity.
“Many people gave up and some are on the verge of giving up thinking they can’t pick the pieces,” she said. “The book is there to show people that it’s possible to Rise Above All.”
As “a rural girl born and raised in a one-roomed shack,” Mandisa says, she at times wonders what she has done to deserve everything she has today, but finds comfort in faith.
“I would not have made it on my own,” she said. “I trust God with everything I am.”
“My faith and His favor upon me is remarkable, I am in awe with what He has done and still do in my life,” she added. “I am who I am because of His grace and would not leave Him for anything.”
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