HIV: A silent relative

by Kopano Sibeko

“It’s amazing how the death of someone can also be a blessing” shares Thembela ‘Terra’ Dick. She walks me on a tale of how her sister, Thembi Ngubane’s memorial service was the day her life really started.
“Thembi” was an AIDS activist who was diagnosed with the Hi-virus at the age of 14, so at her memorial service I was courageous enough to speak out, because she had always motivated me to come out and be open about my sexuality and stop hiding as a “boy” she sighs .

Thembela sounds a bit skeptical I can tell by the tone of her voice, and I quiclky pick up that she doesn’t know whether to be grateful that her sister passed on or that the thought of how her life has shaped up is a bit discomforting considering how far she’s come since then. However shares with me that her speech at the service  where she officially came out about her lesbianism created an interest in Richard Mills and Jo Menel from Street Talk, a media production company that was documenting the memorial that day.

terra in Paris with TFC member_2008

Thembela Dick & Mpilo Cele during Paris visit in 2012

She utters that “they approached me and asked if I could be a Researcher for my sister’s story and they offered me training which also afforded me the chance to learn about the visual media.” She currently  holds a position as a researcher, a filmmaker, a director and she also does some editing. She stresses that she can’t do this on her own but she gets the support from her colleagues.

Terra tells me that she is a very persuasive person and that it is easy for people to trust her, so those are the traits that she uses to communicate with people of different cultures, age groups and races because StreetTalk is about stories in the township and putting people together, “I deal with two types of filming,  those are profiling and group discussions” she said.  Then she explains that in the meantime there are only covering the Western Cape. In the midst of our telephonic interview I also get an awakening that her voice is pretty gentle and akwardly convincing so it makes sense that people could easily warm up to her.

Though her life  might seem picture perfect  with her doing what she’s passionate about, but Terra  tells me that she didn’t complete her matric and she knows that one day that reality will catch up with her “I wanna go back to school, I need to know the basics of these technicalities”. She admits that she has to know how to talk and be knowledgable about what she does “I only see a future in film” she insists.

After a few minutes of silence, I ask her to tell me more about her family and where she comes from, “I was born in Gugulethu township, Cape Town, but I was raised in Queenstown in the Eastern Cape”. She tells me that she is a child of Buyiswa Komeni Mtshakazi and Mbambeleli Mtshakazi, who were not so actively involved in her childhood as she grew up with her siblings and that the absense of her mom in her life made her bitter “I refused to go for almost 3 months to see my mother, I was angry at her and after a while I discovered that she was HIV positive” she confesses.

I could easily sense her discomfortness resurface, though she assures me that she is comfortable and  transparent “it’s time we stopped hiding, we need to be there and support our family members who are HIV positive” she confesses.
Thembela also opens up to me about how the virus has become so much a part of her life “it has become a silent relative” she shares with me that five people in her immediate family are living with the virus and she encourages the society at large that they need to do away with the mentalty of not using a condom .

She tells me that she was lucky to have met Zanele Muholi who has been so supportive “Zanele has been great, though sometimes she doesn’t show how much she cares, but she does and she motivates me” she giggles. She also mentions that she’s an emotional person and all this can be too much for her  to handle at times.

Thembela Dick in F&P 151

Thembela Dick’s portrait in Faces & Phases series by Zanele Muholi (2011)

In the reality of it all it suddenly hits me that Terra featured in Muholi’s Faces & Phases and also in a 4 mins intimacy video. In the latter she was part-taking in unprotected sex, so I asked her if that is not hypocritical of her to preach that people should  use condoms while she is not, her response was “my girlfriend and I have been together for sometime now and we get tested almost every after three months and when we did that video we both knew each others statuses” she explains calmly.

I also voice out the fact that most people that don’t know the beauty of art will say that, that clip is not any different from pornography she says “sex is not a taboo and it’s also not porn especially if you’re doing it with you’re partner.”
She laughs gently as she explains to me that, that video was not even planned. She recalls that it was on Human Rights day in 2012 and Muholi took our intimacy photos for Being series which forms part of lesbian safer sex education. She photographed Terra and her lover Lithakazi Nomngcongo and she explains that they were standing, but later on pose on the mattress which heated the moment.

“I was very close to my girlfriend and it just happened, so I even forgot that Muholi was there” she laughs with excitement. She also adds that Muholi didn’t stop them so  they also didn’t care, because they were focused on what they were doing . However she tells me that Muholi asked if they wouldn’t mind if s/he exhibits their video” I asked my girlfriend, she said she doesn’t mind and I thought why not?”.

“I want to make the best of my life, this is a memory I’ve created” she adds while giggling. She slowly moves away from the topic and tells me that she is learning photography and that she is currently filming two documenataries called ‘Lesbian Love‘ and another one  called ‘Terra the Les’ it’s about her personal life telling the story about her family members who are HIV positive.