The recently opened Garden of Hope in the Free State National Botanical Garden has been thoughtfully designed to challenge the stigma surrounding HIV/Aids and offer a tranquil haven for those living with it.
More people are affected by HIV/Aids in South Africa than anywhere else in the world.
The garden was officially opened in December 2009, with many dignitaries and special guests in attendance. These included representatives from the Botanical Society of South Africa and the South African National Biodiversity Institute, the provincial Department of Health, and a number of UN employees from branches dealing with HIV/Aids.
The event was marked by exuberant music, dance and song provided by the botanical garden’s choir, young violinists from Joe Solomon Primary School, and petite dancers from http://www.namibian.org/travel/namibia/damaraland.htm.
The garden’s curator Peter Gavhi, and Zaitoon Rabaney, operations director of the Botanical Society of South Africa, performed the ribbon-cutting ceremony while garden staff lit candles.
A chorus of vuvuzelas, South Africa’s noisy but popular plastic trumpets seen at all football matches, sounded for a minute at noon in recognition of those who live with HIV/Aids, and those who have already died from it.
A number of special features make this a place of relaxation and serenity for all visitors, not only those who are HIV-positive. These elements are designed to offer a sensory experience that uplifts and heals.
The central water feature stands as a symbol of life and renewal, and is especially significant for the African continent given its frequent droughts and heavy reliance on the precious resource.
Three pillars rise from the water. The faces carved into them symbolise the millions of people living with HIV/Aids. Surrounding the circular water feature are two rings of sandstone slabs, which represent the journey of life, and also unity and infinity.
Grass surrounds the central area, its lush growth symbolising love, empathy, compassion and support for those living with HIV/Aids.
A path of sandstone encircles the grass, signifying life’s hardships and the rocky ground on which people often find themselves.
Finally, the garden’s perimeter is divided into two. One half consists of a colourful mural, to bring HIV/Aids out into the open. While there is secrecy there is no hope, and only when the falsehoods and rumours are stamped out can positive action be taken.
The other half is a semicircle of honeybell bushes (Freylinia densiflora). This hardy fynbos plant, one of nine Freylinia species all occurring in South Africa, attracts birds and gives off a sweet fragrance that represents the beauty of life.
HIV epidemic peaking
Figures released in 2009 by the Human Sciences Research Council reveal that in 2008 about 5.2-million South Africans were living with HIV/Aids. The report also revealed that more than 250 000 people died of Aids in that year.
While prevalence averages around 11% nationally, the epidemic has peaked, according to national youth HIV-prevention programme loveLife, which released its second annual publication on the status of HIV in South Africa in November 2009.
Some groups are more vulnerable than others – prisoners, disabled people, Aids orphans and commercial sex workers are at particular risk of contracting HIV.
However, in the past five years the prevalence of HIV among 15- to 24-year-olds has dropped. This also indicates that the rate of new infection has decreased.
Haven for flora and fauna
The Free State National Botanical Garden, opened in 1969, is part of the South African National Biodiversity Institute’s network of gardens around the country.
Covering 70ha and situated in Bloemfontein, the capital of the Free State province, the garden is open every day of the year.
About 400 species of plants make their home here. Most species are indigenous to the surrounding areas of the Free State, Lesotho and Northern Cape, such as species of the genus Rhus or karee, white stinkwood (Celtis africana), the magnificent Orange River lily (Crinum bulbispermum), white and orange wild dagga (Leonotis leonurus) and many medicinal plants.
The vast area provides shelter for 124 bird, 54 reptile and 49 mammal species.
The garden also contains an interesting fossil tree trunk of the species Dadoxylon arberi, which flourished in the Harrismith district and is estimated to be between 150- and 300-million years old. D. arberi is an ancient member of the extinct Cordaites genus of trees that were the forerunners of today’s conifers and ferns.
More examples of this extinct specimen can be seen in the Petrified Forest of Damaraland in northern Namibia.