Officer Maxwell Nkhungulu pulls me aside as I am looking through the viewfinder of my camera, framing a photograph. “Make sure to take photos of everybody. We are here to take steps to improve our lives so nobody can feel ashamed.”
We are at a positive living event at the nearby Baptist Health Center in Senga Bay, which discussed how people living with HIV/AIDS can improve their quality of life and interact more with their communities. In Malawi and much of sub-Saharan Africa, HIV infection carries with it connotations of immorality, infidelity, and pestilence. People who are identified as HIV-positive are often ostracized from the community and even distanced from their families. People are afraid to care for them lest they become infected or associated with the disease. This significant barrier to HIV treatment is slowly being diminished through sensitization campaigns, but it serves as a great testament to the courageousness of people such as Maxwell Nkhungulu.
The meeting particularly stressed good nutrition and adherence to antiretroviral drugs (ARV’s) which help to reduce the severity of HIV infection in the body, thereby prolonging lives. Through regularly taking ARV’s and adhering to a healthy lifestyle, people living with HIV can appear more healthy making it easier to integrate with their communities, and live longer, happier lives overall. Over 40 men, women and children attended, a mere fraction of the over 1,800 people infected with HIV in the Lifuwu Health Center’s catchment area.
Maxwell is the Deputy Coordinator for HIV/AIDS with the Salima police and as such, spends much of his time speaking about positive living and the benefits of ARV’s throughout Salima district. Arriving for the event decked-out in leather motorcycle gear on a rumbling motorbike, he certainly projected an image of vitality. A dynamic speaker, he stressed that through being open about one’s HIV status and living a healthy lifestyle, one can live a long, full life, “Unless I am open about it [my HIV status], I can die.”
“I lost my younger brother to HIV/AIDS, and he was not open.” Maxwell stated that after watching his brother succumb to the same virus with which he is infected, he decided that he must be forthcoming so other people could benefit from his experience. He lists difficulty getting proper nutrition, poverty, and inadequate orphan care (he takes care of his late brother’s children) as the largest challenges that he sees in treating HIV in Malawi. However, he believes that through sensitization, awareness of treatment options, and encouragement for testing (especially for the nation’s youth), HIV can be successfully managed in Malawi.
Here in Lifuwu, help2kids works with two groups who address these issues with an emphasis on youth empowerment. Lifuwu Health Center’s Tingathe Youth Club (Drama Group) regularly does outreach programs in the community that include drama performances, games, and songs that address issues of HIV prevention, positive living, gender equality, and health. The group is open to any youth in in the community who is interested in their goals, and promotes teamwork, self-confidence, and self-expression/advocacy.
As part of the positive living seminar, Tingathe Youth Club performed a drama about a young man who despairs after he finds out he is HIV positive, but is later counseled by his community and learns about positive living. help2kids volunteers have found the drama group to be an engaging, fun, and meaningful project with which to work. They provide feedback on skits, sing, dance and beat drums all while helping to send an important message to the community.
|Edzi Toto Club (AIDS Total Club) meets every Thursday afternoon at Lifuwu Basic Primary School. In response to the world-wide HIV epidemic and Malawi’s own HIV burden (Ten percent of adults are HIV-positive), the members of Toto Club wish to learn how to prevent HIV and work towards an AIDS free future. help2kids volunteers and staff work with the club’s patrons to lead workshops, games, and activities that educate and raise awareness about HIV prevention, stigma reduction, life skills, and gender equality. Some of this material echoes and reinforces what they learn at school, but is presented in a different, more engaging way.
For example, in class the students may learn about how the HIV virus hijacks the body’s immune cells. At Toto Club, they played a game illustrating this concept. In class, they learned that abstinence is a way to prevent early pregnancy and HIV infection. At Toto Club, they discussed how their culture and religion view abstinence and whether or not those views align with their own values.
By the last round, very few immune cells make it to safety. Through subsequent rounds, more and more immune cells are lost, producing more HIV viruses.
|After the somewhat intense unit on abstinence, help2kids arranged a fun activity for the Toto Club members to tie everything together. Mr. Papaya, a local craftsperson came to teach the children how to make bracelets using insulated wire and thread. While the activity was slow-going and frustrating at first, as the bracelets took shape, looks of satisfaction and accomplishment came over their faces. The entire time, Mr. Papaya circulated the room offering assistance and advice. The bracelets symbolize either their pledge to remain abstinent until marriage or to do everything in their power to prevent HIV, and are now their badges of membership.
In December 2014, help2kids began managing the construction of a new clinic building funded by donations from Konda Ku Lifuwu, a group started by former help2kids volunteers. Half of this building will be devoted to HIV testing, counseling, and treatment. Currently, for those in Lifuwu and its surrounding villages in order to obtain any kind of HIV related service, they must cross in front of all patients waiting to be seen. The stigma and shame associated with HIV/AIDS makes it very difficult for these people to seek treatment and contributes to the morbidity and mortality of HIV/AIDS in the area. When the building is completed, there will be a dedicated, discreet place for people to be tested, and when necessary, pick up their monthly allocation of ARV’s.
To further reduce the feelings of shame and fear patients may feel when seeking out HIV/AIDS services, this month help2kids volunteers designed and painted a beautiful mural on the wall of the HIV wing. It is meant to be a cheerful presence in the room to lift spirits and inspire hope. If the people of Malawi are able to follow the good example of people such as Maxwell Nkhungulu, the members of Tingathe Youth Club, and Edzi Toto Club and change their attitude about HIV/AIDS, they can make great strides towards an AIDS free generation.
In short: think positive.