Pvt. Andries Nhlengethwa jumps from planes and lifts 100-pound weights. He also happens to have HIV.
The 31-year-old parachutist and bodybuilder is one of the few South African soldiers living openly with the deadly virus, presenting a new face of the pandemic on a continent where AIDS drugs are rare and infection is often a death sentence.
Many of his fellow soldiers would rather die silently than “face reality and go and be tested,” Nhlengethwa said in the tiny office at 1 Military Hospital where he counsels patients how to cope with the illness. “If they see a person like me, who looks so fit and healthy, who does bodybuilding, then maybe they will do something about it.”
Mission to share story
Nhlengethwa joined the South African National Defense Force in 1997, as the country was emerging from white racist rule. He has done more than 360 jumps and wears his parachutist wings with pride.
Nhlengethwa tested positive for HIV after serving in the South African force that helped put down fighting in neighboring Lesotho in 1998.
The news was a shock, but he found out as much as he could about the disease that has infected an estimated 23 percent of South Africa’s armed forces. He now shares that information with everyone he can.
At first, some reacted with fear. Fellow soldiers stopped dropping by to see him. His own relatives refused to let their children play with his 7-year-old son, who is not infected. But his openness encouraged others to get tested and seek treatment, now available free to military staff through a U.S.-funded research program.
Nhlengethwa insists he can do anything his fellow soldiers can do, but has had to make adjustments; South Africa won’t deploy him abroad again.
He took up bodybuilding when doctors advised him to quit boxing lest he infect others. He is now one of the most popular people at the gym, puffing out his chest and flexing his muscles for his admirers.
Last year, as South Africa celebrated 10 years of all-race democracy, Nhlengethwa threw his own party to mark six years of living with HIV.
Credits a positive attitude
Some who attended that party are no longer here today, he said sadly.
He credits his continued health to careful medical attention, good food, lots of exercise — and a positive attitude.
“I think there will be sufferers from HIV/AIDS and there will be survivors,” he said. “I strongly believe that I am one of those survivors.”