Our guest blogger today is Chipo Chung, actress and S.A.F.E. Trustee.
Growing up in Zimbabwe, AIDS was the silent killer. Countless adults simply dropped down dead and disappeared.
For this reason, I got involved with S.A.F.E.’s projects in Kenya. I’ve worked with the charity for over ten years and witnessed the important work they do, publicly breaking the stigma and silence about HIV and encouraging communities to access available testing and treatment services.
S.A.F.E.’s work has developed to include peace, environmental issues and female circumcision, but HIV has always been at S.A.F.E.’s heart. As 2015 looms, policy-makers are celebrating the statistics: could the next ten years see the end of AIDS? Is it safe to stop talking about HIV?
Last year, I had my first school chum diagnosed with full-blown AIDS. In a world in which testing and treatment is readily available (even in Zimbabwe) it seemed bizarre that, due to fear, he found out about his status only when he was at death’s door. He is now on the road to recovery, but the case highlighted to me that AIDS is not of the past. New infections are still happening every day, and recovery is exacerbated by ignorance.
These are the same issues S.A.F.E. set out to deal with ten years ago: creating an environment where knowing one’s status and living positively was key. S.A.F.E.’s activists were working in an environment in which HIV was seen as a death sentence, hospitals were seen as morgues, and where HIV-positive people were shunned for fear of infection. Community support and the de-stigmatisation of HIV were absolutely essential to encourage friends to access treatment and relatives to look after them.
Using high quality street theatre to dispel myths and pass on facts, while making audiences laugh and cry, S.A.F.E. encouraged communities to use condoms and get tested. In areas where hospitals had been returning ARV drugs to manufacturers unused due to lack of uptake, S.A.F.E.’s performances, followed by testing drives, increased testing figures fourfold.
Free treatment had been available for years, but no one knew about it. S.A.F.E. bridged this gap by introducing communities to the health service providers on stage after each show. S.A.F.E theatre performances have now reached over a million people in Coast and Central Provinces of Kenya.
S.A.F.E.’s work extends to a group of Maasai activists who have spearheaded a cultural transformation in their community in the Loita Hills. When SAFE Maa asked us to follow our HIV programme with an intervention on female circumcision, the rite of passage was practiced on almost 100% of young girls. Through our campaign, we can now look forward to the end of this practice within ten years and the adaptation of an alternate rite of passage.
I asked S.A.F.E.’s founder Nick Reding whether he had the same optimism about our work on HIV: could we start looking forward to a world post-HIV? His answer was categorically, ‘No. We are so far from that reality.’
Although donor saturation may cause ‘giving’ to be ‘post-HIV’, the behavioural issues surrounding the virus still absolutely necessitate S.A.F.E.’s work. For example, there is little public health education or understanding about adherence and the development of drug resistant strains of HIV.
Nick explains, ‘The nature of the drugs is that people start to feel better, so they stop taking the drugs or start sharing it with other people, or, in some cases in the slums, even selling them as beauty products! But it’s a chronic condition. There is this misperception that the drugs are a cure.’
With misunderstanding regarding ARV treatment at the grassroots level, continued lines of treatment are essential as is more education in order to stem the growing possibility of drug-resistant strains of HIV. ‘It could be a ticking time-bomb,’ Nick warns. S.A.F.E. prides itself on being part of a major shift that has made testing far more acceptable than it was ten years ago, but it is committed to fighting HIV for the long haul.
It is complacency that allows a patient to lapse from finishing a course of treatment. And S.A.F.E. is vigilant to keep up its panacea of education, compassion and solidarity to the end.