In the summer of 2011, Holly Powers (MBA ’11)was on a consulting assignment for a Cape Town, South Africa, nongovernmental organization (NGO), arranged by Mendoza’s Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship. She saw firsthand the prevalence of the AIDS epidemic — and was stunned by how resistant people were to getting treated.
By then, it was well known, she says, that HIV doesn’t have to turn into AIDS. It doesn’t have to be a death sentence. Treatment was readily available for most people — and usually free. But so powerful was the stigma of the disease and the possibility of being shunned by the community that she found people would rather die than find out they were positive. They wouldn’t even get tested.
There was an encounter with one family in particular that left her deeply shaken. Both parents were HIV positive, but neither knew when they had contracted HIV. It was possible that all of the children were fine. It was also possible that some or none were fine. No matter. The parents refused to allow their children be tested.
“We went round and round with them. They wouldn’t do it. And the parents were not on medication, so you knew at some point they were going to die unless they changed their minds,” Powers says. “You can’t make sense of it. That’s the hard part. I left there never knowing what happened to that family.”
By the time Powers returned to South Africa in 2014 with her family — husband Christopher Powers (FIN ’00) is a foreign service officer with USAID — she could see some changes. “The number of people who are now on therapy is much higher than it was,” she says. “But it’s still relatively low in comparison to the number of infections that are still happening every year.”
A 2014 UN report estimated that 6.8 million South Africa people were infected with HIV or AIDS, which translates into 18.5 percent of the adult population aged 15-49.
Horror stories were readily available in the media about people dying and children being orphaned. There weren’t many stories about the light at the end of the tunnel. “It really has gone from being a deadly disease to being a chronic illness,” Powers says.
An idea started brewing. “What if I could show what a normal life looks like for people who are HIV positive?” she wondered. “That they do live normal lives, they have children, they have families, they have relationships, jobs, hobbies.”
Thus was born her series of photo essays, “Positivity — Living with HIV in South Africa.” “Photography comes in handy with nonprofit organizations,” she says. “I often used it as a tool in my work, because I have to be able to tell a story.”
The stories she tells are powerful. Brave souls such as Jackie, a career woman and mother of three grown children, who is newly married to an HIV-positive man. There’s Patty, who advocates for privacy within the health-care system where HIV-positive clinic patients are handed large, conspicuous, green cards in the waiting room, while other patients receive small white ones. And Gary Allpass, who insisted on being identified by first and last name. Allpass fought back so fiercely and adamantly when he lost his job for being HIV positive that it is now illegal in South Africa to fire someone for that reason.
Rinah is featured on the website with her son and young daughter. She appears to be glowing with good health, but in fact, she’s HIV positive.
“Hers has been one of the more sad and painful stories,” says Powers.
“However, I think the reason that hers touched me the most is because of what a fighter she’s been. She just…doesn’t…give up. It would have been so much easier for her to roll over in the way that so many people do. She was in poverty, had lost her job, and her kids were so devastated they were going to kill themselves.”
Rinah is part of a group of community members who get a list from the clinic every day of people who have tested positive and not returned to receive their medication. They go door to door and try to convince them to go back to the clinic.
“If people are too far gone, they provide food and hospice-type care,” Powers says. “And, really, those individuals are making a greater impact within their communities than any organization that steps in. People will listen to them in a way that they’re not going to listen to me, or listen to you, or anyone who’s running a nonprofit.”
Powers’ eventual goal is to publish the stories in a book to be distributed in testing clinics as a counseling tool. Her aspiration is that people can be shown a book of hope, of lives that are still being lived.
“My experience in 2011 was so sad and hopeless,” she says. “It’s been uplifting to meet these people and hear their stories of how they’ve fought their way through it. They’re doing something to give back rather than sitting back and allowing themselves to die. It’s been a humbling experience.”