Caring is its own reward
"I am hungry. Can you give me some money for food?"
These words have become the norm for Lehlohonolo Mokone, an HIV counsellor in front of his ninth patient for the day at a clinic in Brakpan, Ekurhuleni.
"How can I help him when I am also hungry?" asks Mokone.
Every day Mokone faces up to 20 patients a day, helping them to deal with their status, adherence and emotional issues.
But the most frustrating part is his inability to alleviate the high levels of poverty among those living with HIV-Aids.
"Every day I see people who are hungry, sick, and poor. I refer them to organisations that hand out food parcels. But I know they don't have food parcels."
Mokone, fondly called "Lucky", is described in glowing terms by other counsellors, who say he is a committed and tireless worker who never turns a patient away.
He began working as a youth leader after school but decided to volunteer as a counsellor in 1997 after his brother contracted HIV.
"I did not see my brother getting any support emotionally and he did not know how to deal with this illness," he says.
"I am supposed to see four to five patients a day but sometimes we see 15 to 20. I am mentally tired."
Mokone's commitment to fighting against HIV-Aids is eroded by labour problems facing lay counsellors.
He says currently the provincial departments do not formally employ lay counsellors but give them a stipend each month.
"We are expected to work for eight hours a day, five days a week."
Putting on his jacket, Mokone is on his way to a lay counsellors' meeting to discuss the problems with their stipends.
"Lay counsellors get paid differently in each province. This means we all do not have a set labour structure. They can pay R800 or nothing and we can do nothing about it."
According to Mokone, the Gauteng health department is aware of the lay counsellors' grievances but has ignored repeated request for a meeting.
"We were told by the department that the stipends are paid to NGOs in our area and they have to pay us."
Trying to steer the conversation to a more personal note is hard because Mokone is consumed by the injustice of the system.
"We counsellors hear a lot about how much money the government is giving to fighting with HIV-Aids, but we don't see it."
Mokone says the counsellors are the backbone of the country's psychological and emotional fight against the epidemic but are not acknowledged.
So why does he do it?
"I don't do this job to be famous or to get rich. I do this job because our people have a low self-esteem. I do it because I have to."
He says most of the problems facing people living with HIV-Aids are about education and understanding how they can empower themselves.
Walking out of the clinic into the street, the young man looks back and smiles. - health.e