“It must have been so depressing - how can we get on top of this terrible problem?” That has been a common response from people when I have explained that I’ve just spent 10 days visiting projects for an HIV/AIDS charity in southern Africa. They then seem taken aback when I reply that I have returned inspired and uplifted by the excellent things I have seen.
As marketing co-ordinator for the UK operation of Hands at Work in Africa, I went in early July to the head office in Masoyi in the Mpumalonga province of South Africa, and then on to central Mozambique to visit their Rubatano project.
HIV and Home-Based Care
There are 40 million people with HIV/AIDS in the world, 25 million of them in sub-Saharan Africa. The pandemic has created 15 million orphans in the region, a figure set to rise to 40 million in three years time - 2010. 57% of those infected are women and girls; they also carry the burden of caring for their husbands, brothers, fathers and sons.
Hands at Work trains volunteers, people like you and me, in basic care and health skills to keep a watchful eye on their neighbours and orphans and vulnerable children (OVC’s) stricken by HIV/AIDS. This is called Home-Based Care (HBC) and has become a much-copied model. It is replicated by Hands across six other countries - Mozambique, Swaziland, Malawi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia and Nigeria. It is a holistic response to the pandemic and gives dignity and independence to its victims.
The Masoyi Experience
In Masoyi there are some 100 volunteers working under department leaders for patient care, orphans and vulnerable children, child-headed households, young mums, grannies, agricultural sustainability, and life skills and peer education for teenagers.
The population of Masoyi is one quarter of a million, with around 60% unemployment and 38% HIV/AIDS infection rate. Masoyi was one of Apartheid’s black homelands and there were few services and infrastructure. Now, there is one main road, and many families are living in brick built houses the size of a British garage. Some have electricity via rudimentary wires; none have consistent running water, which many still collect in containers from boreholes up to several hundred metres away. Perhaps after the major flooding in England over the summer, those of us in the UK can now relate more easily to the hardship of not having running water.
I was taken to visit a number of patients by a beautiful young volunteer nurse called Unathi: the first was the 32-year-old mother of lively 8-year-old Timut, who seemed to be all too aware what the body pains and shivers she was now enduring meant; next was an elderly man James who didn’t know his age but was the last of five siblings and, with no pension coming through, needed a chest x-ray because he could hardly breathe.
Where is the inspiration in this? It’s in the hands, hearts and eyes of Unathi and the other HBC volunteers who spot these difficulties and do something about them – Timut’s mother would be taken to the clinic for a medical check and counseling; volunteers will ensure that Timut is cared for and looked after at school. Hands at Work would provide the funds for James to get to hospital or take him there.
The Mozambique Experience
At the Rubatano project in Mozambique, still in its infancy, there are 35 volunteers. They don’t just monitor the health and well-being of their charges; they might cook a meal, clean the house, refer them to Hands at Work for medical, financial or care assistance, ensure orphans are doing well at school, take people to clinic or hospital or simply sit with them and give them time and prayers to ease their pain and loneliness - HIV/AIDS is still an unmentionable stigma in these societies. In my first 24 hours, I saw three funeral processions.
Life expectancy in Mozambique is 36 years with over 20% HIV/AIDS infection rate in Gondola, the village where I stayed in central Mozambique*. About 70% live below the poverty line and the literacy rate is 48%. Here, people live in mud huts with dirt floors; they subsist on produce from the family small holdings - mashambas - which might be miles from their hut. If they’re lucky, they might sell surplus.
One orphaned family existed in this way. When I visited, the eldest brother, 17-year-old Pedro, was in the city of Beira over 100 miles away trying to get a better price for their sugar cane and bananas. 15-year-old Augustine, a quiet, gentle boy was left in charge of his five younger siblings. Augustine was lucky to be at secondary school - less than half primary school leavers go on. As the warm winter sun faded and his sisters shivered in their rags, he told me his favourite subject is Physics. Carlos, who manages the Rubatano project and shepherds his flock of volunteers as attentively as any guardian I’ve ever met, pointed out that the price of Augustine being at school was not just his inability to bring home money for the family; it was also the costs for fees, books, pencils, uniform, bus fare and school trips.
So how did I come away uplifted from that? Well, we worked out on a scrap of paper that for the price of an England football shirt, Augustine could be kept at school for a year, maybe become an engineer and lift his family out of such a hand to mouth existence.
Meeting the Grannies
They call grannies “vo-vo” in Mozambique (it’s “gogo” in South Africa). However they are known, these grannies are being left holding their children’s babies as a near whole generation of adults has succumb to HIV/AIDS. Susannah in Gondola now cares for the five children of her two late daughters at a time of life when she might have expected to be cared for herself in her old age. 2-year-old Maria just giggled and smiled the whole time I was with the family; her brother Juinio is less fortunate, having infections and a lethargy so alien to a normal 5-year-old boy. Here American nurses on Hands at Work’s gap year programme “Footprints”, sat with the children, spoke gently with Susannah, took medical notes and administered the first dose of antibiotics to Juinio. Both children are HIV positive.
So how can I be inspired by this scene? Carlos and his volunteers are creating a community care site at Rubatano, offering food and medication distribution, counselling, pre-school activities, and ARV (anti-retroviral drug) support groups; there is an agricultural site of poultry farming and vegetable gardens where project workers teach farm skills to orphans to enhance sustainability and food security.
Have you had a conservatory built or double glazing installed recently? Rubatano Centre can be built and fully equipped for less than £12,000 and will serve the 26,000 people of Gondola. Or put it another way, a monthly food parcel distributed to orphans or patients costs £ 7.
I am inspired because I know that people around the world care deeply about the Susannahs, Juinios, and Augustines if only they get to know about their plight. Hands at Work in Africa cares for 15,000 OVC’s with a target of 100,000 by 2010. It works through churches, schools, organisations and groups of friends to tell people about Rubatano, Masoyi and its other projects; about the volunteers who care enough about their neighbours to devote a few days a week to them; about the simple things that can make so much difference to a shivering orphan in the middle of Mozambique, or an elderly man who struggles to breathe in a windswept wasteland in north east South Africa.
“Tell the people…”
I asked Carlos what he wanted me to do when I returned to Britain: “Tell people in the UK we are so thankful for being touched and remembered by them,” he said. “Go and speak the voice of the orphan in Mozambique, the voice of the patient, the voice of the volunteer”.
Their message is one that inspires and uplifts in the face of a terrible problem, and is simple for anyone who hears it: listen, care, act.
*Source: Mozambique News Agency