Resource Logo
Sunday Times-South Africa

Obituary: Nomvula Msikinya: caring gran who courageously fought scourge of AIDS


Nomvula Msikinya, who has died at the age of 89, was a school teacher in the Eastern Cape who devoted her retirement to caring for Aids orphans and youngsters with HIV.

Her work in Ethembeni, near East London, inspired the launch in 2008 of a programme that resulted in 466 grandmothers like herself supporting, caring for, encouraging and advising between 5000 and 7000 children across the country who had been orphaned by Aids, were themselves HIV-positive or were considered especially vulnerable because of a lack of adult care and supervision.

Called the goGogetter programme, it was started under the auspices of loveLife and attracted the attention of IT billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, when they visited South Africa. Their foundation sponsored the programme for the first three years of its life.

Msikinya, affectionately known as "the English lady" because of her elegance and proper demeanour, was born in Middledrift on December 26 1922. She graduated as a teacher in 1941 and taught in the Eastern Cape and Cape Town until retiring in 1982.

Instead of putting her feet up, she initiated, and encouraged young adults to participate in several community projects in Ethembeni aimed at developing their talents and putting them to commercial use.

One such project involved training people in sewing and arts and crafts, and provided access to markets through local competitions.

She started a daycare centre which still offers day care, nutrition and recreational activities to young orphaned children from child-headed households to enable their older siblings to stay in school.

In 1985, she started adult basic education classes so that everyone in the community could learn to read and write.

In the 1990s, when Aids started becoming a tragic feature of life in South Africa, she was at the forefront of a small group of courageous people who challenged the government-imposed culture of denialism and fought to remove the stigma around Aids and spread understanding of its causes.

She challenged her church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, to face up to the issue, speak openly about HIV and care for households affected by Aids.

She herself did not shy away from addressing the underlying and deeply entrenched social and cultural practices which placed women and children at risk of HIV infection and possible death.

She broached the direct cause of HIV infection directly and unsparingly with members of her congregation and community.

She had the rare gift of being able to combine a no-nonsense approach to such things with a manner that commanded respect from her audience without alienating them. They listened and began to understand the need to protect their women from HIV infection by practising safe sex.

Her message to orphans and vulnerable teenagers was not necessarily one they wanted to hear, but hear it they did. Often inviting them into her house, she talked to them about life issues and told them it was better to delay sex until they were older and married, and then to use condoms.

She didn't just lecture them. She made sure they had food and clothes. She checked that they were in school and that they received their social grants.

Those who had HIV she comforted and inspired. HIV was not a death sentence, she told them. She encouraged them to live a positive lifestyle.

As part of the loveLife campaign, she was instrumental in setting up the National Adolescent Friendly Clinic Initiative, now called Youth Friendly Services, which loveLife introduced at the Ethembeni clinic.

Former loveLife CEO Dr David Harrison said: "Gogo Msikinya had two almost paradoxical traits. She commanded great respect from everybody, and yet she could connect with young people as if she were one of them. She made her presence felt in every situation.

"We decided to fly her as part of a group of old people from the Eastern Cape to Johannesburg to help design the goGogetter programme. On the flight, one of the old women insisted on smoking her inqawe, the traditional long-stemmed pipe of the Xhosa, much to the horror of the young flight attendant. It was only Gogo Msikinya who had the authority to ensure compliance with the flight regulations.

"She was almost imperious in her control of every circumstance. At the same time, she talked with young people as though she were part of the gang. She never made disparaging calls for moral regeneration, which is often the language of the elders towards younger generations. She made them feel that they had value."

Msikinya is survived by four children, 17 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren.


Copyright © 2012 -Sunday Times (South Africa), Publisher. All rights reserved to The Sunday Times. Reproduction of this article (other than one copy for personal sreference) must be cleared through the The Sunday Times Permissions Desk.

Information in this article was accurate in April 1, 2012. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.