|20 year old Juliette sits quietly at the back of the group. She is uncertain about her future – but believes that she does have a future, although she was recently diagnosed as suffering from HIV.|
The newest, and one of the youngest member of the Bahai Group in Balawoli village close to the shores of Lake Victoria in Uganda, Juliette says that she has taken great comfort from the support she has received since joining Bahai – one of a number of PLWA (People Living with Aids) groups being supported by Irish agency Self Help Africa in the Kamuli area of southern Uganda.
Formed in the late 1990’s to provide collective counselling and support, and through education and training to reduce the stigma that attaches to victims of the virus, the Bahai PLWA group meet every week on a patch of ground adjacent to the local government offices outside their village.
Currently numbering 44 members, all of the group members are victims of the HIV/AIDS virus – a devastating pandemic which it is estimated will kill more than 3 million people worldwide this year – approximately 2.3 million of whom will be in Africa.
For the most part the Bahai PLWA members are philosophical about their condition – know that there is little prospect that they will ever have an opportunity to access costly anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs, but understand at the same time that careful management of their condition can significantly reduce the rate at which their future health will decline.
One of the oldest members of the Bahai PLWA and a founder of the Balawoli village group, Katherine Nagwola says that their activities have done much to educate local people about HIV/AIDS, and to change the way in which other members of the community relate to them.
‘In the past if you had HIV/AIDS you were shunned, and the disease brought shame upon your family’, she says. ‘Now it is different, and the fact thdat we are open about our condition, but are still trying to get on with our lives despite this set-back has earned us not sympathy, but respect’.
With the recent loans and other assistance provided to the group they have established a group piggery, a poultry production unit, and a groundnut (peanut) garden – activities which have assisted not just in improving the earning potential of members, but also in improving the diet and nutrition of those who are living with HIV/AIDS.
‘A proper diet is a major factor in slowing down the pace at which the HIV virus becomes fully blown AIDS’, says Self Help’s HIV/AIDS programme co-ordinator in the Kamuli area, Charles Mugoowa.
‘ A good diet also means that those with the condition are not as susceptible to other opportunistic infections which can strike’.
‘In the past it was very difficult for people to go for VCT (voluntary counselling and testing) because of the shame – and in many instances they just didn’t want know. As a consequence victims were living in denial, and in their ignorance were continuing to spread the virus to others’.
Self Help’s practical support for PLWA groups has enabled members of access credit to set up small income generating activities, and has also provided members with hens and pigs for group businesses, and the necessary training that will enable them to run these successfully, despite their illness.
A poultry business which was established last year is currently yielding almost four dozen eggs each day, while group members expect that to double in the months to come.
Profits from the sale of eggs are divided equally between the seven group members engaged in the venture, while each member also receives half a dozen eggs per month – to maintain protein levels in their own diets.
As well as supporting members in their desire to lead normal lives despite living with HIV/AIDS, the Bahai PLWA group provides vital counselling and support at community level to victims who have being diagnosed with the condition.
As a result, people such as Juliette now have someone to turn to. ‘I don’t know what I would have done if there wasn’t this kind of support’, she says. ‘At first I thought that I would be all alone, but I am not’.
Although estimates of the number of people infected by HIV/AIDS in Uganda vary from the 4.8 per cent of adult population number quoted by the government, to independent estimates closer to 14 per cent, the country is still regarded as one of the most progressive in sub-Saharan Africa in it’s response to the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Self Help Africa in Uganda
|Self Help Africa began working in Uganda in the late 1990's, initially on a three year pilot project in Asamuk, and latterly with area based projects in Amuria and Kamuli.|
A number of new area based projects have been started by the organisation in the country in recent times.