S. Africans with HIV look for love on Net forum

December 11, 2005|By SCOTT CALVERT | SCOTT CALVERT,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Jake Mabeo's online dating profile says he is a bit shy but talkative and friendly, that he honors values such as humility.

It says he is looking for a woman who is mature, has a sense of humor and would embrace his son.

What it does not say - does not need to say - is that Mabeo has the virus that causes AIDS and is seeking someone who shares his HIV-positive status.

Mabeo is a member of Positive Connection, the only Internet dating forum geared to people with HIV in South Africa, the country with more infections - over 5 million and counting - than any other.

"It makes life easier," the bearish 39-year-old salesman says with a chuckle. "I don't have to explain anything. I still haven't found anyone I've gotten romantically involved with, but I'm carefully going through the list."

AIDS is no longer an automatic killer here. As in the United States, it has become a chronic illness for those with access to antiretroviral drugs. Up to 150,000 South Africans are on treatment, well below the half-million deemed in urgent need of care but far more than a few years ago. Life insurance is an option for some with HIV, and medical advances make it easier to bear healthy children.

Yet romance remains a fraught pursuit. Despite an adult HIV prevalence rate of about 20 percent, the stigma attached to the disease remains harsh. HIV-negative people, not surprisingly, want to stay virus-free, site members say, and are likely to bolt if a partner discloses positive status.

So, for the 225 South Africans who belong to the free site, it is a refuge, a safe zone where they can look for a date or a friend, as well as information on living with HIV/AIDS. Members are gay and straight, white and black, secretaries and bankers, with one other tie: access to the Internet.

"I just feel everyone is entitled to be loved and to love," says Ben Sassman, an HIV-negative Cape Town man who started the site in 2003 after two male friends lamented their inability to find women who would accept them. "Why can't there be a site for HIV-positive people to meet?"

But some AIDS experts say that while they understand the appeal, they worry it could hinder efforts to bring carriers of the virus further into mainstream society. "We must treat HIV-positive people as regular, normal people. If you start having dating Web sites specifically for them, it will ghettoize them and make them a separate segment," says Debbie Mathew, who directs the AIDS Foundation of South Africa.

Olive Shisana, author of a recent AIDS study conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council, says nearly half of South Africans surveyed think there is nothing wrong with marrying someone with HIV, even though that would always require protected sex.

"That's unheard of; I was so shocked," Shisana says. "People are beginning to normalize HIV."

Sassman, who works for a company that supplies nurses and doctors to Britain, disagrees.

"Society has not accepted people who are HIV-positive yet," he says. "If you meet someone you know is HIV-positive, people can't wait to get home to wash their hands."

Several site members say they turned to Positive Connection after HIV-negative partners walked out the door. Some members, including Mabeo, infected a partner, then watched the partner die and vowed never to go through that again.

Even when two people have the virus, protection is advisable because there is more than one strain of HIV and re-infection can worsen the prognosis. Even then, the trick remains finding a good match.

Dudess, 39 y/o female from Roodepoort

According to my closest circle of friends, I'm a closed book, yet the expression on my face with what I'm being confronted with, will say it all. A contradiction? I cry when I need to, laugh when something's funny.

"Dudess" is Renshia Groenewald, one of four white women on the site. She joined two months ago. A divorced mother of two, she learned she was HIV-positive in late 2003, the consequence of unprotected sex after her marriage ended.

"I was playing Russian roulette with my life as well as those of others," she said in an online interview. "Stupid, but true."

Groenewald, who started treatment a month ago, says she has not told her children or most of her friends and describes her life as an emotional roller coaster.

"The only way I've tried to approach friends, being diagnosed HIV, is by means of the Internet," she wrote. Most white South Africans, she says, think HIV is a black disease and a sign of sexual immorality.

She hasn't met anyone. "I'm sort of in a Catch-22 situation, wanting to meet a guy but also not really. ... I want to have a friend to talk to, go out with, etc."

JLO, 26 y/o female from Johannesburg

Have you ever met an African Jennifer Lopez? My body is exactly like hers. Ambitious, exciting but shy sometimes. My wish is for a cure to be discovered!!

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