While the rate of new infections has been declining since the late 90s in Tanzania, recent figures show that almost five per cent of the population are still infected with HIV. The rates of infection are higher among females, with two thirds of HIV-positive people being women. There are also strong regional differences, with some regions reporting over 14 per cent of occurrence (figures from UNAIDS).
Christina runs a support group for HIV positive people in Mkamba village, and her motivations for starting and running it are very much personal.
Christina married in 1986 and the couple had a baby boy; however, her husband sadly died two months after the birth of the child, and it was unknown what caused his death.
When almost 20 years later Christina suddenly got very ill, she tried several different remedies and traditional therapies. Only after nine months, when her weight had dropped down to 25kg, was she diagnosed with HIV. She immediately started treatment, which slowly improved her symptoms.
Her personal suffering and the knowledge that treatment could make her better motivated her to share her story with others, in order to help those in a similar situation. She started teaching the community on both the medication available to help those already infected, and ways of preventing new infections.
Along with four other HIV-positive friends, she created the Wapendanao Group (Lover’s Group), a support group that provides help for two key segments – orphans of parents who have died from HIV, and young HIV-positive community members. The members receive education about HIV medication and a healthy lifestyle, and, crucially, mental wellbeing support to reassure people that a HIV diagnosis does not mean the end of a normal life. The group is currently in the process of asking for government funding to help spread the message of preventing HIV and other STIs in Mkamba and beyond.
In addition to her work with Wapendanao Group, Christina also offers counselling at the government-run HIV test clinics. Every three months, the government hospital nurses visit the village hamlets to provide free HIV tests, and Christina offers support and advice to those coming to have the tests done.
Christina plays a key role in helping reduce stigma around HIV and HIV-positive people, simply by speaking out about her own illness, and by being a positive role model for others living with the disease. Christina has seen a positive change over the last few years, with sufferers having an easier time within the community thanks to people discussing HIV more openly and having a better understanding of disease.
Overcoming the stigma of a topic is a common challenge faced by volunteers working on WASH projects. Often, certain subjects within the education curriculum that go hand-in-hand with the building of new toilets – notably menstrual hygiene management (MHM) – are not spoken about openly within the community. This can result in resistance from parents or teachers when trying to organise lessons surrounding MHM subjects. Young Tanzanian and international volunteers address these issues by holding regular meetings with different sectors of the community, gently explaining the importance of education and discussion for keeping girls in school, preventing disease and having a healthy attitude towards reproductive and sexual health. This was recently the case in another Raleigh WASH community, Mugudeni, where the community came together to improve MHM education – both in school and at home – as a result of action from the volunteers.
Christina emphasises the importance of youth in continuing the de-stigmatisation and helping spread the education surrounding HIV. While there is some participation from youth in Mkamba, this is something she would like to see improve further and hopes that the example set by the young people from Raleigh in terms of participation and activity will make a difference.
She has already seen a change in the community since the beginning of the Raleigh project in terms of both improved hygiene practices, not only in the school but also in the homes across the community, and the community members are also starting to talk more openly about disease and disease prevention. Christina hopes that this will translate into talking more openly about other topics which have previously not been discussed, including HIV.
Christina’s hopes for the future is to continue the work she is already doing on education, reduction of stigmatisation and the decrease of new infections. However, she also hopes that HIV sufferers will be more valued as members of the community, to ensure they can continue living a normal life even after they have been infected.
The Wapendanao group is currently in the process of applying for funding from the government to help support their work. They are also raising pigs in order to raise money. All funds go towards helping the sufferers of HIV get education, treatment and live a healthy life, as well as expanding the group’s activity through future campaigns.
If you would like to contribute to their activities, get in touch:
Kikundi Chawapendanao Group, PO BOX 437 Kidatu. Telephone: 0687526600
Interview by Charlotte Löfgren
Edited by Jessica Rowbury