SIHLE MHLONGO* moved away from home in Soweto when he was 18, to search for a better life on the streets of the Joburg CBD. He told Mbali Zwane about how he turned to prostitution and later contracted HIV.
I grew up poor and I didn’t want to be poor anymore. Poverty led me to prostitution.
We had to move in with my grandmother when my mom died in 2005. There were eight of us in a one-roomed shack, and we relied on grant money to carry us through the month.
I couldn’t get a job because I don’t have an ID document and I didn’t finish school. I still don’t have an ID. My late mother’s boyfriend disappeared with the documents I need to apply for an ID; we’re still looking for him.
A friend of mine told me how easy it was to make money in the Jo’burg CBD through prostitution. He showed me the ropes and introduced me to a few clients. Soon my days of poverty were over. I got sucked up into the lifestyle of nice things, it was fun and there was always someone willing to pay for it.
But there were disadvantages to it; I stayed with five other people in an apartment and we were almost always intoxicated. Some clients were abusive and they dictated what they wanted and left no room for negotiation. I would have sex with three or more people on most days, and most of them didn’t want to use a condom. This is how I contracted HIV.
Safe sex is just not practical in prostitution. You can’t always convince a client to use a condom. I knew having unprotected sex would make me sick eventually but when the money was coming my way, that was the least of my worries.
I was familiar with the virus because my mom had HIV and later died of AIDS. My three younger siblings are also HIV positive.
The lack of AIDS education and awareness contributes to new infections and stigma in communities.
If my mother had known more about the virus, she would’ve known that it’s possible not to transmit the virus to her babies. The fact that she couldn’t tell those close to her about her status made it harder to seek or receive information.
The health system also needs to do more for men who have sex with other men, by providing support and making more information available in public spaces such as clinics.
When I found out I was HIV-positive, I didn’t start ARV treatment immediately. As time went on, I had to stop the prostitution because I developed anal abscesses. Later, I contracted TB.
My health was deteriorating so I’ve had to move back home. I sometimes think about going back because poverty hurts so much. I only eat once a day in the morning, then I just wonder the streets of the township to help me get through the day.
Still, at least I’m able to take better care of my health here because the clinic is within a walking distance and I’m always sober.
I’m taking care of myself, I’m looking for a job and trying to get my ID documents in order, because I promised myself not go back to prostitution.