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Soccer is a life saver for HIV Positive Ladies
June 26, 2010
For members of the Positive
Ladies Football Club, playing soccer is much more than just a way
to have fun.
All its members are women
infected with the HIV/AIDS virus. In this impoverished district
outside the Zimbabwe capital, having an outlet and a bond with teammates
has helped the players keep up their spirits as they fight the disease
and the stigma that goes with it.
And now is a special
time for the club. It fields a team known as the ARV Swallows (ARV
is an abbreviation for antiretroviral medication) which will compete
in a tournament in neighboring South Africa while the World Cup
is being staged.
The Swallows have already
triumphed in one local women's league, and they've kicked stigma
and prejudice off the field at their home ground at Zinyengere government
school, about 20 miles southeast of Harare, said Ivy Choga, a nurse
with Medecins sans Frontieres, or Doctors without Borders, the international
medical humanitarian organization.
In this southern African
nation, where nearly a quarter of the adult population is estimated
to be infected with the virus that causes AIDS, people with the
disease were long shunned in local communities. Infected women were
banished from families.
"They were hidden
away and getting very sick. Families were planning burials,"
or Stones of God in the local Shona language, named after the district's
bleak landscape of granite rocks, the "Positive Ladies"
on Saturday were helping a group of their members prepare for a
trip they once never dared dream of.
The Swallows are competing
in a 5-a-side tournament of HIV positive women in South Africa scheduled
July 2 and organized on the sidelines of the World Cup by Doctors
Without Borders from its HIV treatment projects in southern Africa.
They will be led by coach
Jonas Kapakasa, a former goalkeeper in a Zimbabwe club side.
"Everyone is very
excited. We're ready to show what we can do," Kapakasa told
The Associated Press.
He said he canceled practice
Wednesday after a child of one of the Swallows became ill. Teammates
rallied around to help get the child to the district hospital.
"It was a real team
effort," he said. "I'm so proud."
AIDS groups have warned
that foreign funding for life saving medication is diminishing.
The so-called "Halftime" tournament in Johannesburg calls
on international donors not to cut back on antiretroviral funding
when the fight against the disease is only half over.
"Imagine the referee
stopping the match against HIV/AIDS halfway through. ... Nobody
calls it quits at halftime," Doctors Without Borders said in
In this arid Zimbabwe
district, with regular power outages and no electricity at all in
some parts, unemployment and food shortages are acute. Players in
the Swallows grow and sell their own vegetables, some make basic
handicrafts and artificial flowers from grass and scrap materials
and others receive food handouts from independent charities. They
receive their medication from the Dutch branch of Doctors Without
Annafields Phiri formed
the team in 2008 after a Harare businessman launched a women's football
league to promote his skin and hair care products.
Choga, the nurse, said
regular exercise strengthened the women and helped them throw off
years of depression, discrimination and isolation. Singing and dancing
goes along with their practices three times a week.
There have been injuries
on the field, but neighborhood skeptics who now turn out to support
the Swallows had learned more about the risks of HIV infection from
unprotected sex, often a taboo subject in Zimbabwe — and how
the risk from cuts and bruises is minimal, Choga said.
Defender Nyarai Bengina,
33, said being diagnosed HIV positive in 2006 was the saddest time
of her life. Seeing her drawn body, wracked by tuberculosis and
near death, neighbors had taunted her to take poison to end it once
and for all.
Now the beaming, smiling
mother of three will soon be enjoying soccer in Johannesburg and
rooting for Argentina.
got our lives back," she said.
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