The struggle with AIDS in South Africa is seen in the faces of teenagers left to care for their orphaned siblings, or mothers without medication for themselves or their children. About 5 million South Africans are infected with HIV, but almost everyone is affected. Among them are volunteers who immerse themselves in a cause with many needs, but few rewards.
"We all live with HIV, so let's all live positively," says Raymond Bokako, a volunteer at the Thembalabantwana community center in Gugulethu, a black township near Cape Town.
Bokako, who is not HIV-positive, volunteers because he "has the community at heart." There is a tremendous need for volunteers like Bokako in Gugulethu, where HIV infects 22 percent of the population.
"The volunteer is contributing their services to the community. It is not their duty," says Nomsa Somtsewu, senior social worker at Thembalabantwana. "They do it with love."
Government funding covers basic services at Thembalabantwana but only essential staff, like social workers and medical personnel, can be paid. The only reward for volunteers like Bokako is seeing the positive impact of their work.
"As part of this sickness of HIV, we lost children, we are not working," says Nontsikelelo Quilinge, an HIV-positive mother who comes to Thembalabantwana. "I know when I come here, at least my children will have something to eat."
Th volunteers are invaluable to the AIDS-affected community in Gugulethu. "If it were not for the fact that we have a very active group of volunteers, we would not be able to do most of the work that we are doing," Somtsewu says.
With many areas overrun with poverty, working without pay is not an option for most South Africans. Most volunteers come from overseas.
Alice von Rijn was studying social work in Holland when she visited Crossroads, another Cape Town township, and discovered Beautiful Gate Ministry, a residential care facility for AIDS-affected children. Soon she was living and working at Beautiful Gate, forming friendships with local residents.
"If you want to learn about the culture, you need to have these relationships. You can't just use your Western culture," von Rijn says.
A Dutch couple, Aukje and Toby Brouwer, founded Beautiful Gate. After moving to South Africa in 1991, they saw the growing threat AIDS posed for South Africa's children, but saw little work being done.
"We were sitting on a ticking time bomb," Aukje recalls. "It was only a matter of time before we faced the consequences of being ignorant for so long."
The Brouwers also live in the township community. "If you say you want to contribute toward their care and want to see them empowered, you have to be willing to be a part of the community," Aukje says.
Lingering post-apartheid tensions between blacks and whites make areas like Crossroads a haven for crime. Volunteers have been hijacked, stabbed and raped. Despite the dangers, the Brouwers refuse to change their strategy.
"Too often we've pulled the need out of these communities and facilitated them in better-off areas, which may be a little more comfortable to us," Aukje says. "But that way the communities will never evolve in taking a stand or becoming even caregivers toward their own children."
Beautiful Gate also trains local South African women as child-care workers. These community members are the only staff members at Beautiful Gate who are paid. Even the Brouwers are unpaid. Still the volunteers say they are fulfilled.
"You get a lot. These children are wonderful and can make your day," von Rijn says. "There's a lot of joy."
Local and international volunteers are upbeat, resourceful and confident in their progress. But there are not enough volunteers to overcome the poverty and lack of resources crippling the fight against AIDS. Illness and death are a daily reality. Thembalabantwana had three deaths in two weeks, including two children.
"It drains you, because it seems like you're not doing enough for these people. You're losing one person after another," says Nomsa Somtsewu.
Similar conditions prevail at Beautiful Gate, where 24 children have died in three years, many within the first months of their life. The scope of the epidemic can feel overwhelming.
"When you go to a clinic with a Beautiful Gate child and you look around and there are a hundred more mothers with children . . . " says von Rijn, pausing before she finishes softly. "It is very sad."
The AIDS epidemic has brought many volunteers to South Africa, but most stay only for short periods of time. However, the Brouwers and von Rijn say they are here to stay. Bokako says he too is committed to the cause in his community. Their commitment is encouraging, but there is much more to do to slow the epidemic.
"It looks like we're climbing a mountain and we haven't reached the top," Brouwer says. "Only when we reach the top will we be able to look around at everything that has happened around us and see the extent of the work that needs to be done."
JULIE PACE, a native of Buffalo, is a journalism student at Northwestern University. She recently spent three months in South Africa.