Eight years ago, July Letsebe was lying on a bed in his small tin shack, waiting to die. Seriously ill with tuberculosis and - although he didn't know it yet - HIV, he had all but given up hope of surviving for more than a few weeks.
Fast forward nearly a decade and July is still with us. Having made the brave decision to speak out about his status, July has trained as an HIV counsellor so that he can help other people in his community with HIV/AIDS and now runs the Stepping Forward programme at the Waterberg Welfare Society (WWS), a South African HIV/AIDS charity which is supported by Comic Relief - the charity that will spend all of the money raised by Sport Relief.
I was fortunate enough to meet July on a recent trip to the desperately poor Limpopo province of South Africa. Had he not told me his incredible story I would not have believed that the strong, proud man I was chatting with was once barely a few weeks from death. He is without a doubt one of the most inspirational people I have ever met, and his story proves how projects like this are having a real positive impact and changing lives.
Like many others in his community, when July first became ill, he refused medical treatment and instead sought the advice of a healer - a common practice in this rural area of South Africa. "The healer threw his bones and said that people were jealous of me and that is why they bewitched me," he remembers. "He promised to cure and protect me." As July's health deteriorated, his family sought the advice of one traditional healer after another, until they were all broke.
After a few months, July was bedridden and barely able to move. "My friends, neighbours, family and community could not believe what they saw," he told me. "I could hear some of them saying that it would be better if I died so that I wouldn't have to suffer any more. Some of them even stopped visiting me." In the end, July gave up on life. "I asked my family to help me die, but they refused."
July's life was saved by a team of carers from WWS. When they saw how ill he was, they offered to drive him to the government clinic once a day for treatment. "Sometimes in life we don't realise that the little we can offer can make such a huge difference," said July, as he recalled the small act of kindness that saved his life.
At the clinic, July received life-saving treatment for tuberculosis. Later that year, he found out that he was HIV positive and, wanting to challenge the stigma that still surrounds those living with HIV, he decided to reveal his HIV status at a local community event to encourage others to get tested. "People were shocked," he says, "I could see the expression of disbelief in their faces."
Today, July helps hundreds of people access treatment for HIV/AIDS, touring the countryside to encourage them to get tested for HIV. "There is something everyone can do to fight against the spread of HIV," he says, "I want to break the silence and fear of this disease."
I accompanied July and his team to one of his 'Gig Rig' workshops at a local secondary school where he delivers HIV/AIDS prevention education and awareness. The team's lorry is equipped with a pull-out stage and PA sound system, enabling them to engage audiences with talks from peer educators from the local community, music and dance. July's work in schools particularly targets young men, who are trained as role models to lead sports and HIV awareness-raising activities in rural schools, youth clubs and churches.
When awareness workshops are carried out within the townships and on rural farms the Gig Rig is accompanied by the WWS mobile clinic, so that voluntary testing and counselling can be available immediately on request. Unless people can afford to travel, and in Limpopo most cannot, access to HIV treatment and services in rural areas is at best limited - so July's mobile clinic is a vital service in an area where up to 30% of the population is thought to be HIV positive.
With an estimated 5.6 million people living with HIV in 2010, South Africa's epidemic remains the largest in the world. The work of the Waterberg Welfare Society provides a living hope for the local community in the battle against HIV/AIDS and Comic Relief's funding of the project would not be possible without the overwhelming support of the British public. I've seen for myself the huge difference the money makes, which is why I'll feel incredibly proud on Sunday to see crowds of people across the country taking part in the Sainsbury's Sport Relief Mile raising money to help people just like July.
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