Sindi van Zyl was introduced to Twitter by Shaka Sisulu, recently published author and grandson of the late struggle icon Walter Sisulu, at Narina Trogon, an eatery in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.
Van Zyl, a fan of the restaurant’s cuisine, went there but, finding it closed, waited in her car. Soon enough, Sisulu, in the company of two friends, arrived at the restaurant and asked it to open. Sisulu then invited Van Zyl, who was waiting for a friend, to join them at their table.
While the women were eating and chatting, Sisulu was preoccupied with typing on his smartphone. Later, Van Zyl learned that he was busy on the social networking site Twitter.
Van Zyl, a medical doctor by training, joined Twitter in February last year. “I realised it would be a great platform to share information about HIV,” she told me as I sat in the flat she shares with her bubbly daughter, Chloe Nandi (named after Shaka Zulu’s mother), infant son Manie and her husband, Marinus.
She told me people in the township were overloaded and “fatigued” with information about Aids. It is the middle-class people, in the suburbs – the early converts to Twitter – whose knowledge about the syndrome is filled with gaps.
“You would think there is access to information, but people are walking around with blinkers,” Van Zyl said, adding that “most campaigns are focused on the masses”.
She wants the thrust of campaigns to be shifted. “We target 12-year-olds, yet there are all these people who are [ignorant]. There are people in their 30s who use abortion as a form of contraception.”
Sometimes, on nights when I have insomnia, I find myself on the internet. I usually make brief visits to Twitter because most tweets are by people in the western hemisphere. But one of the people I invariably see is Van Zyl, responding to questions related to HIV/Aids, posting links to health articles and making small talk. An insomniac herself, she has found ways to engage with hundreds of people, offering advice in the early hours of the morning.
“I spend a lot of time answering questions and one of the most heartwarming stories is about a woman from East London.”
This woman, HIV positive and pregnant, was given medicine at a state hospital. From her general knowledge, Van Zyl knew the prescribed drugs were not what an HIV-positive and pregnant woman should be taking. Doctor and patient, by a stroke of good fortune, found one another on the internet.
The conversation, initially conducted on Twitter, soon coagulated into SMSes, emails and faxes. “I was able to fax her prescriptions. I also mentored her through SMSes,” Van Zyl said.
When the woman gave birth, her son was (and still is) HIV negative. “Even if I were to die today, I would die a happy woman,” she said.
Van Zyl also told me about a woman who has been HIV positive since 2003 and whose husband, a player in the taxi industry, is oblivious to her status. She will not tell him about it because the woman is scared that “if he were to know about it he would kill me and our kids”.
Van Zyl has managed to get some men to use condoms because “men think that sperm will affect the child”.
“Every doctor should be treating patients the way I do,” she said, and indeed she is not the only one. “The Twitter hospital has grown” and includes, among others,
@docbovi, @DrBabes, @DrKuks, @lillafriend, @DoctorG_ and @dr_yummymummy.
Van Zyl was born in 1976 in what was then Salisbury to a Zimbabwean father and a South African mother. Van Zyl’s mother, Nonhlanhla, left the then Natal province to live with an aunt, Victoria Fikile, who was married to Zanu’s chairperson, Herbert Chitepo. (Zimbabwe’s first black lawyer, Chitepo died in 1975 in suspicious circumstances in Lusaka, Zambia.)
It was in Zimbabwe that Nonhlanhla met Muchadeyi Masunda, Harare’s current mayor, in the mid-1970s.
With her mother, Van Zyl moved to South Africa in 1995 to study. She enrolled for a bachelor of science degree at the University of Pretoria, which she completed, before she ventured into medicine.
She now works for Anova Health, an HIV/Aids non-profit organisation, as a clinical adviser and medical officer. With the department of health, Anova Health is involved in the roll-out of ARVs, the training of nurses and teaching journalists to write knowledgeably about HIV and Aids.
Van Zyl was critical of a recent Sowetan front-page story about a woman whose breasts were growing larger because of the use of D14, an antiretroviral drug.
“Sensational reporting has a detrimental effect,” she said, adding that anything that can be used to justify not taking ARVs is often embraced by those who are reluctant to take medication.
After a chance encounter at a restaurant and the discovery of Twitter, this #AngryBlack woman is making a difference to scores of HIV-positive people.