Some of them are barefoot. They work in uncomfortable settings, mostly voluntarily, but out of their sweat, others are getting blinding salaries and living a heavenly life. They are the real reason why Malawi is a model in global Aids fight. CHARLES MPAKA went down to them to appreciate their efforts.
In a dimly-lit, tiny office at Goliati Trading Centre in Thyolo on a Saturday, three people sit around a table poring over and shoving through a mass of handwritten papers heaped before them.
It was lunch time. And it was a market day.
But they had more serious work to do.
“We are compiling figures of access to treatment by people living with HIV and Aids in our areas,” says Evelesi Kabichi, the only woman member in the team which also includes a young man in his early 20s.
Out of these records sent in from the 23 community-based organisations (CBOs) under the Mapanga CBOs Network, they would determine rates of adherence to treatment in all the villages the CBOs operate in.
Done, they would send the comprehensive, up-to-date data to the District Health Office.
Of course, their information will eventually feed into the national statistics which government officials will eventually present at high-profile gatherings around the world.
Malawi has earned praises around the world for its impressive campaign against HIV and Aids.
The drive has seen the country registering notable progress on encouraging people to get tested, enrolling the infected to treatment and fostering adherence to treatment.
Malawi’s campaign has brought down stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV and Aids and raised significant awareness among Malawians about the condition and how they, infected or affected, can cope with it.
Such is Malawi’s sterling work that even the United Nations is impressed, as indicated by Michel Sidibe, Executive Director for UNAIDS.
“Malawi was the first country to introduce Option B+. You were also the first to sign the 90-90-90 treatment target to help end Aids epidemic by 2030.
“Mr President Sir, we are very impressed with the risks you are ready to undertake. This shows commitment,” Sidibe told President Peter Mutharika on the sidelines of the just ended African Union summit in Johannesburg, South Africa.
In recognition of Malawi’s outstanding Aids campaign, the country has just received the highest amount of funding from the Global Fund among all the countries in Africa.
“It is because of the credibility of your case and efforts,” Sidibe said.
It is all so easy to attribute that success elsewhere. But CBOs are doing all the donkey work.
They are unseen.
They work from drab and often improvised offices, if at all.
Many of their members don’t know what a computer looks like, let alone how it works.
They have no slim-fit suits to wear. Some of them have no shoes.
They have no double-cabin, state-of-the-art 4X4 vehicles to bewilder their communities with.
They walk, literally, sometimes over long distances, for mass awareness drive.
But they are the real reason why futuristic offices exist in Geneva, Washington DC, London, Berlin and in Paris.
It is because of their work that billions of dollars are poured into Malawi through air-conditioned offices at Capital Hill where strategies are constructed on how the country will fight HIV and Aids.
Between March and May this year, The Daily Times visited CBOs in Machinga, Nsanje, Thyolo, Mulanje, Zomba, Mangochi, Chikwawa and Blantyre – some of the trips courtesy of Malawi Network of Aids Service Organisations (Manaso) – to appreciate the work of these organisations.
We can report that through these CBOs, ordinary men and women are a good reason why Malawi is chalking globally-acclaimed successes in home-based care, awareness and adherence to treatment for HIV and Aids, tuberculosis and malaria.
“When we suspect a case of HIV, we approach people, we speak to them and encourage them to get tested. We also encourage those that are found HIV positive to adhere to treatment and we make sure they visit the hospital as is required of them.
“But there are also times when someone is not feeling well and cannot go to hospital to collect the drugs themselves; so as CBO members, we go to collect the medicine for them. This is to ensure that they do not miss treatment,” says Modesta Loudon from Tithandizane CBO in Zomba.
And it is torturous work.
“We don’t get paid for what we do. We don’t have bicycles so we have to walk long distances to conduct awareness campaigns and make follow-ups on whether someone is adhering to treatment or not. It is hard work,” says Aisha Mafuta from Women Against Aids CBO in Mangochi.
Yet, they do it without complaining for their motivation is the common good.
“It’s our community that stands to benefit. That’s what motivates us,” Mafuta says.
It goes without saying that in a country where over 85 percent of the population stays in the rural areas most of which are hard to reach, the role of the CBOs in championing change can never be underestimated.
Chairperson of the NGO Board, Emily Banda, says Malawi has CBOs to thank for the vital role they have been playing in working with the most vulnerable people across the country and fostering development.
“These are front line organisations that directly deal with local people for very little remuneration but mostly on totally voluntary basis,” she says.
Banda says their relevance is seen in the fact that international NGOs and donors including some UN agencies opt to partner with these organisations when implementing various development programmes in environment, education, early childhood development, human rights and others.
This is because the CBOs know the people and their culture. They know the problems besetting their communities.
They know what solutions would work or which ones would not work. They speak the people’s language.
“We were born in these communities. We have grown up there and we live there. So we know almost everyone. We understand our people better than anyone else from outside,” says Kabichi.
And The Daily Times also found that beyond their deeds, the CBOs have a tacit way of sowing hope through their names: Malo a Mchezero, Mawa ndi Anthu Otisamala, Tithandizane, Khalani Maso, Limbikani, Tigwirizane, Tsogolo Ndilathu– such is their optimism, the optimism they inspire among those that may have given up hope.
“You can actually see that amid despair, these CBOs inspire a lot of hope in their communities through their work and their names. I find that encouraging,” says Maziko Matemba, chairperson for Manaso in the Southern region.
Matemba describes CBOs as the greatest mobilisation agents he has ever seen.
“They know who to talk to and how. They know the culture of the people that they deal with. Without them, national and international NGOs would have found it hard to work in the communities,” he says.
Which why he sees them as a critical player if the objectives Malawi has set out in the National Strategic Plan for HIV and Aids (2015 – 2020) are to be met.
In the plan, Malawi seeks to achieve ambitious 90-90-90 treatment targets. The strategy says by the end of 2020, Malawi will have diagnosed 90 percent of all people living with HIV, started and retained 90 percent of those diagnosed on treatment and achieved viral suppression for 90 percent of patients on ART.
For Matemba, those targets are achievable.
“But not without CBOs and small local organisations,” he says. “So we have to have a plan on how we can get them more involved, how we can get the most out of these foot soldiers. Or the 90-90-90 target will remain a pipe dream”.
Like ants, brick by brick and unnoticed, they are restoring hope among millions of Malawi’s citizens. They are proving to be the antidote against the virus that causes Aids. They get no thanks for it, but they get more frustrations. We detail these frustrations in part 2 of this series Saturday.
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