One of my fellow volunteers, Martin, said something this week which accurately represents the Zimbabwean people I have met so far, ‘when we don’t have any bread, we strategise’.
Martin was describing the resourceful and non-violent response of his people during a previous era of economic hardship. These traits were especially evident this week, at one of our home visits to members of an HIV support group. On Tuesday we left the Regina Coeli mission with the Zimbabwean volunteers promising us that, for the first time, we would see the ‘real’ rural Zimbabwe. Our temporary home is surrounded by sumptuous green hills and the vast majority of the locals we have met so far seem to be sustenance farmers. This is to be expected in a country with roughly 80% unemployment, especially as we are hours away from Mutare. Our location and accommodation are certainly rural by anyone’s standards. However, we had all seen the small huts in the distance straddling the hill tops and we were all fully aware of the type of settlements we would be visiting. No one questioned the Zimbabwean volunteer’s proclamation that we would indeed be seeing the ‘real’ rural Zimbabwe.
Visiting support groups in rural Zimbabwe
After a small walk up a winding, dusty path we were greeted by the large crescent smile of our host Mai Mawadza. She has worked with Diocese of Mutare Community Care Programme, DOMCCP, (the organisation we are volunteering with) for several years. As we had met her in the previous week, she wasted no time in showing us her village and the devastating effect that HIV has had on her local community. As we walked past the first home our host informed us that it was now just an empty building. It was previously a family home but the occupants, including several children, became yet more victims of the HIV pandemic. A cold chill came over the group, we were being confronted with the reality of HIV and AIDS. Statistics and media coverage do not convey the same power and sorrow that you are faced with when visiting communities affected by HIV. This was soon contrasted by another warm greeting from the recipient of our first home visit, Mrs Ruwende.
The objective of the day was to find out how we could help these people and to have an appreciation of their daily routines and the issues they faced. Mrs Ruwende told us about a livestock program that DOMCCP runs with the support groups. Each individual ward (local community) receives enough chickens so that each group member has four for their home. As the numbers of chickens grow they have to pass on four to another household, this is to ensure the sustainability of the scheme. It generates a small income for the members, as they can sell on eggs and any surplus chickens. Acquiring cash is difficult in Zimbabwe even for a healthy individual, these group members also have to live with the physical issues that come with AIDS as well as the impact this has on an individual’s mental health and morale. The program also reinforces the sense of community and it empowers those involved by giving them the choice of how to manage their livestock.
I have read that throughout Africa people often suffer alone with HIV, isolated from the rest of the community. This is largely due to the stigma attached to those that are HIV positive, community groups have thus been few and far between. I am not informed enough to judge if this is now changing, however in this area of Manicaland it certainly is. DOMCCP should be praised for their work, as all the people in the support group seem to garner great strength from sharing their problems with others in similar situations. However DOMCCP seems to be their only source of help, I imagine this must put a fair amount of pressure on them as they are the only organisation helping communities within this region.
At another home visit we met a lady whose predicament startled us, yet we were all inspired by her strength of character. Tracy lives with her husband and children, however what makes her situation different is that she also shares her home with her husband’s second wife. Polygamy is actually quite rare in Zimbabwe these days; it used to be more common, but it is one of the traditions that is dying out. Unfortunately what isn’t so rare is the fact that all the adult members of the household are HIV positive.
We spoke to Tracy separately, away from her husband and his new wife. As Tracy spoke to us her eyes communicated a deep pain but a kind smile kept breaking out from underneath her deeply wrinkled face. She told us that it was far from a happy arrangement and that she has been shunned by the other two and now leads an isolated life. Her husband and his new wife had not informed her that they were HIV positive, she only realised when she came across them as they were collecting medication at the Regina Coeli hospital. Tracy only continues to live in the household so that she can raise her children, she cannot leave and take them with her. She is imprisoned by her condition, poverty, tradition and her maternal instincts. Seeing the pride she took in attending to her garden and her livestock though was uplifting, Martin’s comment about the resolve of Zimbabweans resonated in my mind as I was speaking to Tracy. It reminded us all that despite the situation we can make a positive contribution to the support group members' lives.
The objective of these visits was to try and further understand the problems people face when living with HIV, so that we could plan our activities effectively. I am sure that we achieved our aims, however we were struggling to see what programs we could initiate that hadn’t already been addressed by DOMCCP. We planned to add value to DOMMCP’s schemes by possibly building a few chicken coops and rejuvenating tired community gardens. However we wanted to start something new that would also be sustainable.
Educating the next generation
The other side to our activities, thus far, has been within local schools. We have held career guidance classes in three schools this week. I had the idea of combining the two elements of our schedule. The plan is to invite the support group members into the schools so that they can give presentations on their experiences and answer any questions. Hopefully this would become a regular activity and is something that could be continued in our absence.
When speaking to school students one of the things that shocked me is their detachment from the reality of HIV. Zimbabwe is a country where around 20% of the population are HIV positive, yet the majority of the children claimed they had never met anyone with HIV. Their general knowledge about the condition was also surprisingly low, yet the kids I was speaking to were often very intelligent. The information they did know about HIV/AIDS seemed to be recited back to me with little understanding. These children had learnt about HIV in class in the same way they had learned their maths times tables. Many of the school students I spoke to were 16-18 and therefore likely to become sexually active in the near future. The visits of the support group members will hopefully confront them with the reality of the condition; I believe it will also empower the support group members. When it comes to HIV prevention, I now see why so much emphasis is placed on educating the next generation. AIDS organisations widely believe that this is what is needed to change the cycle of events in Africa. If we can contribute towards that even in a small way on a local level, then I believe we would have justified our visit to Zimbabwe.
By ICS volunteer Joe Trimby
Photo: Farmers in Zimbabwe, taken by the March-June 2012 ICS volunteers