Coronavirus

‘HIV taught us a lesson we will never forget’ – Amadiba community on beating Covid-19

By Estelle Ellis 21 April 2020

An Amadiba Crisis Committee team in Mdatya village preparing to go to the homesteads. About 160 homesteads were covered. (Photo: Supplied )

With no confirmed cases of coronavirus, the message every day from the leaders of the Amadiba community is clear: ‘We are moving as one community to defeat the virus.’

Two decades ago the Amadiba community learned their lesson in a devastatingly hard way when they were waiting on government. They use their formidable community “bush telegraph” to keep outsiders away from their coveted fishing spots along the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast. They have plenty of food as they have just harvested and they are in collective agreement that no alcohol and no cigarettes are allowed. The scars that HIV gave them are a reminder that history need not repeat itself.

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“A few months ago we heard that there was a new virus coming. We knew it was in other countries already. The previous time we heard about HIV it was too late. We were waiting for government and the municipality to come with their awareness campaigns. If you look at us you would think we are a separate island, the way government treats us. Government never came. Then the HIV spread like hell,” the chairperson of the Amadiba Crisis Committee, Sbusiso Mqadi, explained.

The Amadiba Crisis Committee has fended off titanium miners and those bringing genetically modified pesticides to their villages – but this time, having seen what HIV did to their people, they were in for a fight for their lives.

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“We don’t have access to a lot of media, newspapers and television,” he said. In fact, he is doing the interview by phone from the top of a mountain he had to climb to get a signal. 

“But we have WhatsApp and Facebook. Many people don’t have smartphones and many cannot read. But we were 100% committed to stopping this thing. Everybody had to hear. Everybody had to agree. We were going to need all of us to beat this thing.

“In my community there are five villages. We are about 4,000 people. We divided them all into small groups.”

At the time he said they were preparing for a big event on Human Rights Day, on March 21. They had organised food and there were many people coming home for the celebrations.

“We were going to talk about how mining affects communities but instead we changed our event and we started going from village to village to talk about the virus. We don’t want to be hit again by this virus, like we were hit by HIV/Aids.

“It was difficult. Our community has an economy of sharing. When we share, we can come in close contact. At a ceremony the bucket of traditional beer goes from person to person. A beer bottle from a shop goes from mouth to mouth. We knew our way of doing things would have to change.

“So we told everyone. We must fight this thing. Together. It is the only way.

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“For months to come, our way of doing things has to change.

“We strategised and we said maybe one car can come in with a person to come and talk about the virus. We know our people don’t just listen. You have to bring something. We found a sponsor for hand sanitiser. As the Amadiba Crisis Committee we have solidarity all over the country. We said a few of you can come help us.

“People came with sanitiser, masks and gloves. We didn’t have a big gathering. We put 100% effort to make sure every single one understood. We explained why the president said we must stay at home. At first people didn’t understand why this virus was different. They asked: Why must we fear this one? There are so many viruses around. We said: You must keep your family safe.

“The good thing is that we grow our own food. We don’t have any problem with hunger. We are harvesting mealies now and sweet potatoes and amadumbe. We don’t have to go to town. There is nobody here who needs a food parcel.”

He said for other necessities they hired a taxi and sent five people with the villages’ lists to the shops in Bizana. “We give them the list and money. They go straight to the shop. Then they come back. This way we also protect our elderly.

“All of us are still doing very well. They can’t test for this virus at the clinic but physically none of us are ill. All of us are doing very well.”

He said they closed the lodge and the campsite early because they did not want visitors to inadvertently bring the virus into the villages. “We cancelled every booking we had. We just closed it.”

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He said tourists were asked to leave the Mtentu lodge and the nearby campsite. “The Mtentu Lodge will not pay rent to the Amadiba Coastal Community Development Trust (ACCODA). In return, the tenant will continue to pay full wages to community members working at the lodge. We think this is a blueprint for how it should work during the crisis. All workers should be paid,” he said.

Since then President Cyril Ramaphosa has announced that in an attempt to stop the spread of coronavirus all but essential workers must stay at home. Inter-provincial travel was only allowed as an exception and road blocks were set up to police provincial borders.

Despite the lodge, the campsite and the roads being closed, men came from Kwazulu-Natal to fish on their coastline. “Two of them came here last Thursday. They slept over at a friend’s house. The community are on the lookout for intruders and they reported it. We went to them and said: There is a big road block, how did you get past? The police are only giving people a chance to get home. How did you get in? We were confused, even now we still haven’t cleared it up. It is difficult for us to go to Port Edward. We have to go to Bizana even though their shops are small. The police have arrested some of us because we didn’t really understand about the permits at first. But they are not arresting the white people. They also broke the rules.

“We were scared when we heard that they came from KwaZulu-Natal where we hear the number of positive cases are increasing every day,” he said.

He said one of the difficult aspects of their united fight against the virus was to address the issue of alcohol with the villages. “We have a little spaza shop. When the announcement came, we sat down with the owners of the spaza shop. I said we needed to work together. They understood the impact and what would happen if we continue to allow people to drink alcohol. We agreed that once they have sold their stock they will not buy any more. As we speak today there is no alcohol and no cigarettes in the village.

“It is difficult for some people but they understand why they are making the sacrifice. We are helping them.”

He said the community was struggling with the limited numbers of people allowed at funerals. “One of our people passed away. We can’t have a funeral in the village. Only the family will have a funeral. We heard what happened in Port St Johns when so many people got infected at a funeral. I said: Let’s stay at home and give the family a chance to say goodbye. When this is over we will visit and we will do what we do.

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“Everybody understands that if they break the rules, they will be putting their community in danger, not only themselves. We tell them every day: This virus mustn’t come here. It will spread like hell. After HIV we understand exactly what that means.

Another community leader, Nonhle Mbuthuma, said there was no room for unhappiness in the villages when Ramaphosa extended the lockdown by two weeks. “We said we can see what this virus is doing. The cases are increasing. We said there is no point in not extending the lockdown,” she said. “Human lives are more important than anything.”

“Not everybody is home. Many of our people are working in KwaZulu-Natal and on the mines in Johannesburg. People are missing their families very much,” she said, “but we are working together to keep our community safe.” 

The incident with the fishermen breaking the lockdown rules to fish on their coast left a deep mark on the community. “We work together with the police. When we see cars that don’t belong here we tell the officers. The police are protecting us. Because we didn’t know about the permits some of our community members were arrested earlier in lockdown. But these men, they were hiding at someone’s house and the police said they can’t arrest them because they don’t have a search warrant. Now we worry every day because they came here and they were not tested. And we are scared,” she said.

“But otherwise the community is happy. We are strong. It is a big thing that we don’t have to stress about food. We all have our own food. I see other communities where people are hungry and they break the law. We can feed everybody here. We look after ourselves.”

Mbuthuma said the community made sure that nurses at the clinics had enough hand sanitiser as they were very precious to the community and they wanted to protect them.

Their biggest wish was that government will bring them some water tanks.

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“We get our water from the river. Five households share a stream, but this is leading to people gathering at the water.  I would be so happy if we can get some tanks. But I must say it doesn’t look like these will be coming. When the president said that rural communities will be prioritised with the tanks, we were really hoping,” she said. MC

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