7 of us traveled by car about 30 minutes East of Llongwe to Mvera, a small village where local people have established an AIDS Support Organization (ASO) to handle the needs of the many HIV+ children in the area. Two young men from the village have taken the lead providing organization and support in many ways to the orphans and their caregivers who are taken for ARV meds to Baylor Medical Clinic twice a month thanks to a grant through GAIA from Abbott Labs. We were joyously greeted by the women, men and children of the village who sang and danced us into the Presbyterian church. A very old and worn awning was hung by the military people, interestingly, from an adjacent army base to cover the entrance to the church for us. We Americans were seated in the front of the red dirt floored church on plastic chairs while the villagers faced us as a congregation. The 21 HIV+ children supported by GAIA sat at the head of the left side and their caregivers at the head of the right. The head of the group thanked us profusely for our support while the head of our local office, a wise and capable woman, translated. Bill, the GAIA president, also commended the local villagers for taking such initiative, helping each other and insuring that their infected children get the care they need. He also strongly encouraged all to be tested and for the pregnant women to take the necessary medications before childbirth to reduce the chance of mother-to-child transmission. The caregivers, in turn, appealed to us passionately for support to help them provide the proper nutrition for their children, most or all of whom suffer from insufficient nutrition which adversely impacts their ability to properly digest the ARVs. After assuring them we would attempt to do whatever we can for them, they sang and danced us out where we took pictures and thrilled the children as well as many of the women by showing them their pictures on our camera screens – many had never seen themselves in a photograph before. They were respectful and grateful we had come.
We went to the home of one of the women in the village who is HIV+ who had inadvertently infected her daughter by giving her own transfused blood before testing had been available. She told us her story and how she is coping raising her daughter and 3 sons (not infected) with the help of her mother who seemed to be a very strong woman. Her husband died, probably of AIDS. Despite her situation she said she is hopeful for her future and her daughter’s – what amazing strength of soul.
After a standing packed lunch on the roadside – leftovers from which we handed to a family selling dried fish on the side of the road, we drove to the Kawala neighborhood in Llongwe. This is a desperately poor area of the city where a community based organization (CBO) has been formed called Mphatso, which means “gift” in Chichewa. A group of 40 caregivers has organized itself into a support group for 200 orphans – 178 of whom are HIV+. They carry out various income generating activities (IGAs) to raise money to support the children, and GAIA provides secondary school fees for 17 of them. They had put a GAIA sign up over the doorway of their rented hut and again we were sung and danced in. This time we were crammed into a small hut maybe 15X30 – the 7 Americans, 15 caregivers and 50 children. Again we were thanked with care. Bill especially encouraged the children to work hard to do whatever they could to successfully complete their studies. They would like to develop more IGAs and asked for our support with that as well as anything we might do in helping pay the rent for this hut which the caregivers currently pay from their own funds and they appealed even for basics like blankets. Again, we explained that our ability to help relies on the donations we receive and we said we would try. The exit was again with song and dance and much ado about having pictures taken with their interest in seeing themselves.
Their needs are unimaginably immense. These children and their caregivers have less than anything we would consider as the most basic necessities and yet they carry on as best they can.