Orange Farm Anti AIDS Club

I never took any classes about the ethics of photography or film. Inevitably, I generally have a guilty feeling whenever entering a zone in which I am documenting the work of NGOs, as if I am invading such space – an outsider amidst the locals. This is precisely the moment when ethics play an important role. Is it ok to photograph and film places and people without their consent? I believe profit (and nonprofit) borderlines the answer. There is no profit involved in this project; yet, I generally refrain from documenting anything I do not have permission – otherwise the wrong impression might be bestowed.

Take Orange Farm, for example. This extremely poor neighborhood, located in the outskirts of Johannesburg, provides enough visual reasons to sentimentally touch any person. And as they say, a picture is worth 1,000 words. So, the massive 1 million population, composed of South Africans, African refugees and foreigners, combined with an overwhelming 20% AIDS rate, 40% unemployment, alarming violence statistics and high consumption of drugs, should be enough to gain attention from readers, right? Yet, during the period of a recent visit to the Orange Farm Anti AIDS Club, I could not stop thinking that such reality should be visually shared.

I simply couldn’t do it; and then it hit me. This project is focused on the people; and that should indeed be the focus. Although pictures of the community would certainly help making my point, the Anti AIDS Club volunteers, committed to changing the reality of Orange Farm, are enough reasons to motivate anyone to feel for their cause. As opposed to photos from random shacks, sad smiles and nameless streets, pictures turned into recognizable faces with historical backgrounds and incredible testimonials. These are true examples of people of change.

Mandla Hlatshwayo, founder and president of the club, is the most prominent figure amidst the volunteers – and perhaps one of the most remarkable individuals in the entire community. His volunteer ventures started in 1992, when Mandla was offering community work to the National Primary Care Organization, as well as an Anti-Apartheid institution. After going into exile in Zambia during the apartheid period, he returned to Orange Farm in 1995.

The Orange Farm Anti AIDS Club was founded during that same year, when Mandla started advocating the teachings of HIV preventing methods in local secondary schools. Only four years later, the first funding was provided for the organization. With money in hands, the Club grew bigger and its projects evolved into further providing assistance to the entire community. Consequentially, counseling those who were battling the disease became one of the main focuses; and a positive mentality towards the sickness turned into the greatest ally in fighting the stigma carried by AIDS.

Preventive teachings were not left aside during this period. Indeed, a combination of encouraging attitude and precautionary methods were diffused in the community through home-based care. Each and every volunteer would visit residences and converse with the population in order to advocate the ideals of the Club. This unique approach was also accompanied by challenges. Funding started to run out, and by 2006, the Club was entirely left on the basis of volunteer work. During these years, the volunteers also struggled in changing the psychological acceptance of AIDS amidst the population. For example, many people refrained from getting blood tests with the fear that others would immediately consider them HIV positive since they were seeking for help. As for those who were aware of their positive status, suicide was perceived as an easy (and unfortunate) solution.

The work ethics remained strong during this entire period, and in 2009, the Centre for AIDS Development, Research and Evaluation offered a six-month funding plan. With such monetary aid, condoms were purchased and distributed in key locations. It is estimated that in these six months, 600,000 condoms were distributed and over 100,000 people were personally assisted. The beliefs and actions of Mandla obviously have had a positive impact in Orange Farm; yet, his work has only been possible because of the volunteers.

Emily, deputy director of the Club, moved to Orange Farm in 1999 and after becoming acquainted with the problems in the community, she climbed on board in 2006. Her work at the Club is not solely focused on AIDS; Emily, along with the volunteers, helps the local population in obtaining ID cards, birth certificates, proper medical transportation and further counseling for abused orphans. She certifies that due to improper living conditions, other diseases are also becoming widespread within Orange Farm – and the Club strives daily to assist any person in need.

Mary had an early start, and began volunteering at the early age of 13. When Mandla first came to her high school in 1996 to teach an AIDS educational workshop, Mary decided to get involved with the cause and obtain further instruction.  In these 14 years of community work, Mary has seen a progressive positive change in the attitude of the Orange Farm population towards AIDS. Back then, the majority were skeptical about the disease and disregarded most of the startling facts; yet, after much educational work, the virus and its consequences indeed became a disquieting issue.

Tefo became acquainted with Mandla in 1995, when they both worked at the church, gardening the surrounding landscape. After his sister died in 2005, victim of HIV, Tefo decided to get full on board and volunteer his time and effort to the Club. Since then, he has been involved with activities ranging from teaching workshops in local secondary schools to door-to-door counseling. Tefo concluded first aid and health security courses to improve his work, and further assures that fear does not help in conquering the battle against AIDS.

Cethrine first started volunteering in 2006, mainly to help the community. Two to three days a week, she spends her hours counseling those who need help to overcome the disease. Cethrine guarantees that a positive attitude is the best ally in this quest. When her cousin died of HIV, Cethrine made up her mind to get more information about the virus, and as a result she became involved with the Orange Farm Anti AIDS Club. She certifies that helping the community, in despite of all adversities, is a gratifying opportunity.

All this work is remarkably done without any monetary aid. Not only money but also basic materials, such as gloves, first aid kits and masks are hardly part of their pursuit. After talking with Mandla and the volunteers, it became clear that they do it simply out of passion for the cause and willingness to help those that battle the disease – including Mandla himself.

Much can be learned from his approach and accomplishments achieved in these 15 years. Luckily, within the next few weeks, a new campaign will start in the community, in which they will be providing free blood tests – once again, all based on volunteerism. By then, I will already be in another part of the globe; but the desire to visually evidence and document all this work strongly remains. Yet, that will not be possible; so, I can only hope these 1,213 words are enough reasons to rest my case.

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For more pictures:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/fernandosapelli/tags/orangefarm/