Babalwa & Anathi at an advocacy event in New York
Anathi Mbono is the second of three children and the only girl in the family. Two years ago, her mother Babalwa, who had tested HIV-positive while pregnant with Anathi, disclosed her status to her. Babalwa was one of mothers2mothers (m2m) first clients and Mentor Mother. Thanks to the support provided by m2m, Anathi was born HIV-negative. Now, she is 15 years old and is in her first year of high school. Anathi actively spreads knowledge about health and HIV prevention among her peers.
We caught up with Anathi in Pretoria, South Africa where she lives with her family to find out what it’s like to be a teenager in South Africa nowadays.
What do you want the world to know about your life growing up in South Africa?
Being a teenager in general is hard. You are never sure whether you are a child or an adult. One moment you’re told you’re too young to make your own decisions and the next, you’re told you’re too old to not know what to do. It feels like we are always told what to do, and no one really asks us how we feel.
The challenges we face today are also different to the challenges our parents faced, so they often don’t know how to talk to us. It is even harder in South Africa and in the townships where opportunities are limited. We live in a time where HIV is affecting mostly young people, sometimes because of the choices we make and sometimes because of the choices our parents made.
Do you and your girl friends think about your health and how it impacts other parts of your lives?
We do. Many of us are responsible because we know that the choices we make set us up for the rest of our lives. Sadly, not all of us think like that. Some risk everything just to be happy now. And when I try to talk to them they think I am trying to be a ‘Miss Know-it-all’ and there’s nothing I can do about it.
Has your mum’s role as a mothers2mothers Mentor Mother Trainer shaped how you think about your role as a health advocate among your friends and the community?
My mother’s HIV status has made our relationship stronger and brought us closer together. I have two brothers so my mother is the one person I can confidently talk to about girl stuff. Her role as a Mentor Mother Trainer means that she’s very informed about HIV and other health issues and I can always rely on her whenever I need information about anything health-related.
My peers don’t have a lot of information about safe sex and our teachers are too embarrassed to talk openly about sex. That is why I took it upon myself to read my mother’s books and learn, so that I can spread that knowledge too. I also rely on her to be able to educate my friends – they know that my mother is always available to answer our questions.
How did your peers react when they found out your mum was HIV-positive?
I told two of my friends about my mother’s status after she disclosed to me. One of them told me that her mother was HIV-positive too and the other asked me to go to mothers2mothers with her to get tested. It was the right move. I was reassured that I was healthy, and I was also able to access free counseling there.
Other kids learned of my mother’s status online from an article of our time at the United Nations General Assembly in New York last year. They started gossiping about me at school and that hurt me a lot. I spoke to my mother about it and got counseling on how to deal with the stigma. After that, I realised that their attitude was due to lack of information so I made it my business to educate them about HIV through the school drama group.
Their attitude has since changed – either because they know more about HIV or because what other people think doesn’t affect me anymore. I know who I am and I am not ashamed.
On International Day of the Girl, what would you like to say to other girls who may not realise how important their health is in reaching their dreams?
That it doesn’t matter who judges you or looks down on you because of what you have or do not have; what matters is what is inside of you. You have a choice: either pick yourself up after every small mistake and learn from them, or lose your dignity while trying to please the world. No one will respect you if you don’t respect yourself.
What would your message be to world leaders?
To not only focus on what we do wrong but help build us and our dreams. I want celebrities to show us their reality so that we can see that they also have challenges, that way we will not feel like failures when we do not reach our goals at certain ages but we will be inspired to keep trying, no matter how long it takes.
Spokeswoman Babalwa Mbono with her daughter Anathi