Friday, February 27, 2009



These women are my heroes. Every village has women (a few men) who volunteer for this role. They are paid possibly up to a dollar a day to perform numerous care-taking tasks for their fellow villagers. Plus, they must get themselves to monthly meetings and continuing education classes. They are women of all ages, some who hobble along in their bedroom slippers bent over their stick-canes, and some who appear young and strong and wise beyond their years. They are the ones who care for the bed-ridden, the injured, the sick babies, and the dying. Some have died themselves due to exposure to the HIV virus in the days before much was known about protecting themselves. They are responsible to know who in the village is ill, who needs bed-side nursing, who is suffering from neglect, where the orphans live, and just about anything you can imagine having to do with health issues. They are to be supplied by the government with medi-kits to include gloves and bandages, but like so many other things here, there aren’t enough, and they often work without the supplies they are supposed to have. They also are paid erratically and may not know from one month to the next if they are going to receive their small paycheck. They do the work anyway. Yesterday, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer came to my district to give First Aid training to over 50 VHW. They were also to receive their monthly checks that day. Many waited around until late afternoon, only to find that the money that was promised was not coming on this day. I found one old toothless health worker shuffling home close to sunset, still having a long distance to walk before arriving home. So much is asked of them for so little material compensation. Some women have been doing this for 40 years and have watched the pandemic of AIDS wipe-out much of a generation of their children, leaving thousands of orphans who they very well may become responsible for.

On my satellite radio I have been listening to the African Learning Channel which always has some interesting stories and reports about African issues. Southern Africa has the highest statistics for HIV infections and education campaigns have been here for some years. But what statistics are showing is that the rate of new infections is not declining. In other words, education is not having an impact on people’s behavior. People are still not getting tested. The stigma is still a strong deterrent. People may lose their jobs if their boss finds out they are positive, husbands leave wives blaming them for the infection, friends reject them. People don’t want to know their status because they fear that if they were HIV positive they would then be unmarriageable, unable to have children and have no future. Denial keeps them safe.

Earlier this week, a group of 5 high school juniors and seniors approached me. They want to develop an HIV education and outreach program in their school with and for their fellow students. They want to support and encourage the students to get tested and help them learn more about protecting themselves, and offer support if they do find themselves positive. I asked the group how many of them had been tested and only one said he had. The others looked sheepish and said that they were very afraid. That is pretty much the same reason they all give for not getting tested. The one who had been tested had a very traumatic experience. He was told he was positive. He said he cried for 2 weeks, didn’t tell anyone, and didn’t go to school. He said he was sure people knew something was wrong, but he kept it a secret. He now says that his second test reported that he was negative. He now wants to help his fellow classmates. What better ground-work to become a sensitive and compassionate peer educator!

I am involving myself more in my immediate community, and not waiting for invitations. I now show-up at the classroom door of the primary school and say “I am here to help. What can I do?” I have now spent time in the 5th-7th grade classes, teaching health, English, geography and whatever pops out of my mouth. I also go over to the high school and sit-in on the debate classes. My teen-age friend, Sabi, who lives next door, is on the team and one of the better debaters. So I fill her full of information to back-up her arguments and she is now one of the best “researched” of the group. I have been inviting the boarders (40 girls of all ages living at the mission) to come to my house for “drawing time”. They come in smaller groups and spread around the kitchen table and floor. I supply them with paper and pencils and magic markers and they have a blast. It is very fun for me as I enjoy assisting them in bringing out their creative sides. Art supplies are not something that these kids ever get their hands on. I am working with a community of village Support Workers to develop an income-generation project with egg-laying hens. They want to generate money to support the 40 orphans they have in this community of 300 people. Besides helping them think it through and getting the numbers correct, I will be doing the fund-raising through the Peace Corps Partnership Program. Another thing, I am starting to meet with the five schools who will be receiving the books from the African Library Project. Thanks to the efforts of 7 special friends Stateside, these schools will be receiving books and starting libraries. Nine months here and I am just beginning to feel like I know how to use myself. I am told this is the norm. Meanwhile, my kitties are getting big and brave. I receive many comments from people about how beautiful they are. I think I am converting some cat-avoidant people into reconsidering their position. The pigs are still emaciated and pitiful, but I have become used to this and don’t cry when I see them anymore. Ahhh, the gift of adaptation.