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Drawing on a life with HIV

31 July 2013

Life with HIV

In South Africa, there are more than 5.5 million people living with HIV/AIDS – around 460,000 are children aged 0-14.

Coping with a life threatening condition is difficult at any age, but a Cardiff University academic is using the unusual medium of the comic book to help South African teenagers come to terms with their condition by putting pen to paper.

Dr Lisa El Refaie, Cardiff University's School of English, Communication and Philosophy, collaborated with South African health education charity Whizzkids United (WKU) to organise a workshop where teenagers produced their own comic strips highlighting their feelings and experiences of living with HIV.

Award winning British comic artist Stephen Marchant was then enlisted to turn some of the entries into a full-colour comic book. The results are a vibrant, hard-hitting yet inspirational comic delving into the hopes, fears, dreams and despairs of these teenagers.

The story entitled "Gossip" represents a significant concern from the teenagers involved in the workshop – the fear of being ostracised by their friends. After the story's protagonist, Nondy, is diagnosed with HIV, she initially finds that her friends treat it as a joke and laugh at her.

"Lola's Story" is a message of hope and endurance. When diagnosed with HIV, Lola is devastated, but with the help of her supportive family and counselling she now visits schools to educate others about HIV, how to stay healthy and not take risks with their health.

Dr El Refaie got involved with the charity because of her research into the use of metaphor to talk about difficult topics, how teenagers read cartoons and comics, and the role that comics play in telling life stories.

Dr El Refaie said: "I suggested WKU might run workshops on how to draw comics, as a way to encourage the teenagers to explore and express their own experiences and feelings, and create educational messages relevant to other young people in their community. The results were remarkable, with the teenagers telling some extremely moving stories for the first time."

Since 2010, healthcare education charity Whizzkids United has been highly successful in using football training as a metaphor for educating South African teenagers about the risks of HIV/AIDS with 35,000 graduates of the programme so far. The targeted young people live in areas where up to 60% of adults are infected with the disease.

WKU was keen to find other ways of reaching teenagers, and of ensuring that those taking part in their football programmes found their way to the WKU Health Academy where they can be tested for HIV and receive counselling and information. This comic book workshop has been extremely successful in getting the teens to open up and express their feelings while receiving support and education.

The charity's founder and director, Marcus McGilvray, from Chepstow, was deeply moved by the success of the workshop. Speaking about the young members of one of the workshop teams, who didn't know anyone else there was HIV positive, he said: "One of the most amazing things was when they opened up and realised they all had the same problem, having HIV… There was a surge of emotion and relief when they found out they were all HIV positive."

Marcus added that the counsellors present at the workshop had been surprised at which issues were most significant for the teenagers. They were much less concerned about the risk of dying than of being ostracised by their friends-something that comes out strongly in the comics. As a result, WKU will be developing new support and counselling that addresses this fear as well as holding more comic book workshops in the future.