AKRON, PA — Every three months, people with HIV and AIDS in rural Simwaanda, Zambia, take a two-day journey to get checkups and refill their supply of anti-retroviral medication.
To get to Choma, the closest place to obtain treatment, they hop aboard a truck or take a bicycle ride of 45-kilometers (27 miles) on a one-track cow path to the paved road. They may wait there for hours until a bus or truck driver comes by and is willing to transport them to Choma.
“This could easily take the better part of a day,” said Kathy Fast, an MCC representative in Zambia who visited the area last summer. “Thus they tend to arrive at the clinic after closing time. This means they have to sleep at the gate or find someone to take them in, then head to the clinic early the next morning and get on the next transport back to Simwaanda, hopefully by that afternoon.”
Although the anti-retrovirals, which stop the progression of the HIV infection, are free, drivers expect a payment. One HIV positive woman in another village works a full week for a neighbor every time she needs to raise $3 for transport to the clinic. Meanwhile she leaves three seriously handicapped daughters behind while she works and travels.
Staying home would be easier and cheaper in the short term. Home-based care workers from Compassionate Ministries, an MCC-supported ministry, know this, so they encourage people to make the trip in spite of its hardships.
If the patients do not take their medicine regularly, they will get sick, even sicker than they were before they started anti-retrovirals, said Maureen Mundia, coordinator of Compassionate Ministries home-based care in an e-mail.
“Ever since I became a caregiver, I had nine cases where clients stopped their medicine and they all died,” Mundia wrote. “When it [HIV or AIDS] is not seen, they think they are cured and then stop taking the anti-retrovirals. They fall sick and die.”
Compassionate Ministries’ home-based care workers are volunteers from Brethren in Christ churches, who minister to people in their churches and in their communities. The workers are trained by Compassionate Ministries through an MCC grant.
Since Compassionate Ministries began training workers in 2001, more than 200 people have been trained. The home-based care ministry is active in several dozen communities throughout the southern province of Zambia.
Through the training, the home-based care workers learn about the effects of HIV and AIDS and issues of stigma, which can cause families and communities to reject people with the disease. The workers use this information as they encourage people in their communities to go for testing and counsel families dealing with the disease.
“Not only do they give of themselves by going to visit ‘clients’ in their communities one or two days a week, but they also bring foods from their own gardens and home to supplement the diet of the HIV and AIDS clients,” Fast said.
Outside Leonard Sintumbi’s home in Simwaanda hangs a blanket, made by MCC volunteers in Canada or the U.S., and delivered by home care workers in 2006 when he and his wife were both very ill because of HIV. His wife died, but Sintumbi was able to get started on anti-retroviral medicines that year. Now he is well enough to farm and support his household of 12.
This kind of self-sustenance is important for people who have the disease, said Mundai. Often the onset of the disease causes people to lose much of their property. Recovering victims need to be empowered with financial support to start their own small-scale businesses, she said.
The blankets and AIDS care kits, which include a variety of hygiene products, help people to recover, thus breaking down the stigma held against people with the disease, said Fast. The gifts also introduce people to the church, said Ginwell Yooma, director of Compassionate Ministries. He accompanied Fast, her husband Eric, and a Brethren in Christ pastor from Kalomo on the trip.
“People have said that if this is what the church does for others, beyond themselves, they want to be a part of that church,” Yooma said.
The Brethren in Christ church has grown because of the work of the home-based care workers, Yooma said. Not only have their present congregations swelled in numbers, but new church plants have also taken place, he said.