“73 people in the community have been trained to care for the sick and we have a support group to help people living with HIV,” says Buku Ndhlovu, chair of the group run by the Isineke Community Based Organisation (CBO) in the rural community of Kenilworth.
Isineke is an organisation which has been supported by the Zimbabwe Aids Network (ZAN) through a group called Bekezela. Bekezela has been around for almost 20 years, working to improve the lives of people living with HIV, as well as caring for vulnerable children and orphans. Ntombi, a Progressio development worker, has been working alongside groups like Bekezela to help improve their capacity, share knowledge on best practices and pass on advice on gender advocacy work and HIV preventative methods. In the last two years her work has had a phenomenal impact, to the point where Isineke are now standing on their own two feet bringing transformation to their own community.
The carers in the community are home-based. Dressed in royal blue uniform and white sun hats I could see in their eyes that they were so proud of their role in the community. They help families care for patients, providing soap and clean bedding, whilst assisting them to take the right medicine.
Most of the carers are living with HIV themselves and counsel the families, helping them to stay positive, encouraging people to get tested, and passing on information from their own experiences and battles with the illness. Eleanor Mayo said, “It is a joy giving care at my age, it is like being back at school; we have learnt so much.” The carers are mostly women, but now some men are joining the CBO which is a positive sign and a step away from tradition.
We visited the home of Maxwell Mxncube (39) to see Sibongile Nkomazana, one of the carers, at work. The house was very dark, only a small window lit the room. There was a large mattress in the corner covered with a thick, red, fleeced blanket, a single curtain hanging over the solid, grey, concrete door. Maxwell lay in bed, his face thin; eyes dark and sleepy. Just six months earlier he tested HIV-positive, but due to lack of food, water and the nutrients he needs, he has been left bed-bound for nearly two months.
Sibongile helps him to take his ARVs, helps him wash and ensures the home is a clean and safe environment. His wife, Sibanda Sukoluhle (39), has to work to provide income and food for her husband and daughter, Sibonginkosi (1yr 9 months). Carers like Sibongile work all around the community providing vital support to families like Maxwell’s and ensuring there is time for the families to fetch water and tend to the garden.
Many challenges ahead
Buku, the chairman, told us that people come to Isineke CBO because “they know they are home. Our dream is that this place (the community centre) is wonderful. We want to be pioneers of assisting people with HIV and AIDS.”
But as Dan and I sat listening to the success stories, smiling at the pride people had in their community and the transformation they have made together with the help of Ntombi and Bekzela, we sensed we were being kept out of the full picture. As I edged the conversations towards issues of gender it immediately became apparent that there are still deep rooted problems within the community.
The women talk
The women in the group were very quiet, huddled together next to Ntombi, whispering in her ear. They were fearful and would not answer my questions in front of the men. Ntombi soon separated the groups, asking the men to go elsewhere so I could listen to their stories and hear their voices freely. As soon as the men moved away the women were instantly settled. Their faces were brighter, relieved and un-burdened and they were incredibly open.
As I sat listening to them, confiding in me, looking at me and reaching out to utter their stories, I had tears in my eyes. I tried hard not to let them roll down my cheeks until I felt sick with grief. Paulina Mpofu (43) talked as her little boy sat on her lap, playing with a stick which lay on the ground. She talked about the burdens of women. She said we plough the land, we fetch the water and firewood and take care of the children. Paulina is also a carer for the sick. She said, “Women are left behind.”
Men denying HIV
I asked her what life is like for a woman in Zimbabwe. Then she shed a tear. “I tried to tell my husband that I am positive and that he had to accept it”, she said, but the men in the community will not be tested, they think that if they are physically fit they must be negative. Paulina told me that her husband denied there was a problem so she could not access treatment. Time passed and soon she grew sicker. Paulina came to the community for help. She told me, “My husband and family have neglected me.”
It was upsetting to hear that such a wonderful woman who cared so much for others had been abandoned by her own family. It was even more disturbing to hear that it was most likely her husband who had passed HIV to her when he forced himself upon her and demanded unprotected sex. Men in rural communities do not like to see empowered women and so many remain silent. Paulina said, “We do not have a voice.”
Women speak up
As soon as Paulina was brave enough to open up the other women followed suit. It was almost a relief for them to uncover the truth about their lives, the reality behind closed doors. I asked if things were changing, if the community projects working with young people were helping to break traditions. Sibanakele Ngwenya (38) said that the community hoped to keep young women off the streets. The project is introducing skills like sewing and cooking to young women so they have a better chance at a future, but that bad traditions are still being passed on.
She said, “A lot of boys drop out of school when they are young. They don’t think it is needed.” Instead they pan for gold all day. “The girls are helpless,” Sibanakele said. Boys of 14-17 abuse girls in the bushes on their way home from school. She said the boys “treat them like assets”, passing the girls around between boys, depending on who is the leader of the group.
Strength in adversity
The women went on to tell me that girls need skills so that they do not have to turn to sex for income. Currently they have to take their own food to the boarding schools to last them a week, but sometimes they cannot afford the food. The boys pay $0.50 to have sex with the girls and this money goes towards their food at school. Paulina said, “Girls sacrifice their bodies for food to sustain themselves.” As a result, by the age of 12 some girls find themselves pregnant and others are HIV positive.
I couldn’t understand that amongst a community with such love for one another, a community where people work side by side to improve lives every day, such evil traditions still exist. I was also astounded by the strength of the women, their ability to smile and speak out and remain positive through it all. I asked them if they are hopeful for the future. Paulina said, “Yes, if this project can take off and if women can run the project. We want to work together as women. We want our rights, we are being cheated. If we go at our own pace it will go well.”
I smiled, shook their hands and told them how amazed I was by their courage. As I stood up they burst into song, clapping and dancing joyfully. They sang “let’s unite together like pigeons so that we develop our country”.
Pamela Jackson is Progressio’s Fundraising Executive. Photo: Paulina Mpofu (left) talks to Pamela (right).