Part 3: Africa Responds

Bereft of medicine and money, traditional cultures mobilize in a new way.

"In the U.S. you have all these volunteers, but they're never worrying about putting food on the table," says Noerine Kaleeba, who launched Africa's first support group for HIV-positive people, The AIDS Support Organisation of Uganda. To keep volunteers going, Kaleeba says, some African communities have planted a special garden from which only volunteers can harvest, or created a fund that pays the school fees of their children. (Zimbabwe, like most African nations, does not provide free education.)

It is often said that Africans are passive in the face of death and suffering, that life is cheap here. The truth is that life is hard. People are so poor that even when they give a large proportion of their income, as most IGAC volunteers do, the total amounts to only a small sum—so small that even bare-bones efforts are hard to launch and maintain. Groups like IGAC are "isolated and scattered blossoms," as Kaleeba puts it, adding, "I wish this blossom could be turned into a flower garden."

It was Sikhangele Ndiweni's mother who launched IGAC's first attempt to raise money: a communal garden for cultivating and selling vegetables. But the plot was small, so the earnings were, too. Ndiweni's mother never saw IGAC's subsequent ventures; AIDS killed her in March of 1997, and her husband died three months later. As their oldest child, Ndiweni dropped out of school to nurse them—"I had to wash my mother and greet the people who visited her," she says—and now, at 20 years old, she is raising her sister and four brothers. She depends on IGAC for food and school fees, but she is not merely taking. Like her mother, she is helping IGAC raise money.

To mobilize his community, Isaiah Ndlovu must rise at 3:45 a.m. and trudge 45 minutes in the dark to catch the only bus.
photo: Mark Schoofs
To mobilize his community, Isaiah Ndlovu must rise at 3:45 a.m. and trudge 45 minutes in the dark to catch the only bus.

In addition to her household chores, Ndiweni tends a herd of goats, part of a donation IGAC received from HelpAge, an organization that assists the elderly. The goats, split into small herds and looked after mainly by orphans, are one of IGAC's two main income-generating projects. The other is a grinding mill for maize. The profits get divided up and given to committees throughout the district, who then perform triage, deciding which families in their villages most need blankets, school fees, or emergency rations of food.

Margaret Nkomo, a member of one of IGAC's local committees, says that in her corner of Insiza there are 46 children who have lost at least one parent. About a third of those orphans have no means of support besides IGAC, yet the goats and grinding mill paid for only some of the children's primary school fees. Nkomo and other volunteers covered the rest by dipping into their own shallow pockets. But secondary school costs more, so some older orphans couldn't afford to go.

Ndiweni would love to finish secondary school—she liked it and was a good student. But there is no money, and she has been catapulted into adulthood. Now she has begun making home-care visits, helping others even as she is herself helped. "I can't bring any food," she says, "but I can cook and wash and help in those ways."

Eliot Magunje, an activist in Harare, is not impressed. "It's not home-based care, it's home-based neglect," he charges. Magunje is HIV-positive, and much of his anger springs from the harsh fact that drugs which could prolong his life are too expensive here. But he exposes the central weakness of virtually every home-based care program in Africa: They offer little or no medical treatment. The ointment for Wilson's bedsores was an exception. Usually, says Isaiah Ndlovu, "Our medicine is to pray."

The emotional toll keeps accumulating. Volunteer Moddie Nkomo cared for her sister's son until he died, cleaning him after his frequent diarrhea. Then there was the "very difficult day" last November when Nkomo "was looking in on three people, and they had all died. Even today we buried another," a 35-year-old man. His wife had died last year, and Nkomo had cared for her, too.

Many AIDS workers believe that programs like IGAC cannot last, especially given the lack of government support. AIDS, after all, has slammed into a continent already battered by a terrible history. Driven off the most fertile land, which remains in the hands of mostly white farmers, rural Africans constantly face food shortages. Many men are forced to migrate between the cities where the jobs are, and the homesteads where their extended families live. This oscillation is psychological as well as geographical, because many Africans exist in a limbo between traditional cultures that cannot be resurrected and a Western materialism that can seem empty. A catastrophe on the scale of AIDS could disintegrate these fragile communities.

Yet in Insiza, the opposite is happening. AIDS is definitely straining the community—but that is precisely why many villagers are volunteering. Especially in rural areas, many AIDS volunteers "are not committed to fighting the disease so much as nurturing their community," explains Sy of UNAIDS. "Success or failure shouldn't necessarily be seen in the number of people dying but helping the community stay together."

That's why foreign aid is so fraught. While poverty can be incapacitating, donors often impose their own priorities or undermine the spirit of self-reliance. IGAC is successful because the villagers have mobilized themselves.

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