BURUNDI: Prisoners form HIV-positive association behind bars

Photo: Eric Kanalstein/UNMIL
Detained twice - jail and HIV
Bujumbura, 26 January 2007 (PlusNews) - HIV-positive inmates in Mpimba Prison in Burundi's capital, Bujumbura, have found that the best way to survive the hardship of being incarcerated in the overcrowded facility is by banding together to support each other.

Originally named 'Mboshwe Kabiri', Kirundi for 'detained twice', the association for prisoners living with the virus later settled on a more uplifting name, 'Turemeshanye', meaning 'support one another'.

Georges Ndabihawe, chairman of the association, told PlusNews the group helped each other access food, drugs and psychological support. The organisation was especially useful because many HIV-positive prisoners' families gave up on them, particularly when they were not expected to survive a long sentence.

The jail was built to accommodate 800 prisoners but currently holds more than 3,000, and food is very hard to come by. The diet of 350g of beans and 350g of cassava flour per day was "not even enough for a child", said Martin Yabu, who is HIV positive.

"Doctors tell me to eat well, to cover myself up correctly; sometimes I feel like laughing at them," said Vincent Tugirimana, who is also HIV positive. He has been incarcerated since 2000 on a charge of murder but is still awaiting trial.

Tugirimana has always managed to get something to eat when taking his morning dose of antiretroviral (ARV) drugs, but for the evening one, he said, "it is only God's will".

According to Baselisse Ndayisaba, coordinator of the Burundi chapter of the Society for Women against AIDS in Africa (SWAA), the problem does not lie in the quantity, but the poor quality of the prison diet.

To help positive inmates supplement their diet, SWAA Burundi helped Turemeshanye start a small restaurant in 2006 as an income-generating activity. The inmates take turns to work in the restaurant and are thus able to supplement their diet.

The women's organisation also provides ARVs, and twice a week brings a doctor to Mpimba to treat opportunistic infections. The government's treatment programme bypasses prisoners, and the group is now lobbying for inclusion in the national rollout.

Despite the existence of the 60-member Turemeshanye, Ndabihawe noted that stigma remained high in the jail and many inmates were reluctant to join the group, as this would confirm their HIV status to the rest of the prisoners. "Those who accept to come in the open have no choice," he said. "Rather than dying unattended, they accept their status."

SWAA Burundi is tackling ignorance about HIV in the facility and regularly shows documentaries, which are as much to educate inmates about the pandemic as they are to prevent those who are negative from contracting the virus.

Most of Turemeshanye's members have been trained as peer counsellors, and chairman Ndabihawe said the group also aimed to make sure negative prisoners stayed negative.

"Some inmates may develop high-risk behaviour such as homosexuality," Ndabihawe said, adding that poor living conditions forced some female inmates to sell sex for money. Condoms are not distributed by prison officials, but SWAA offers them to prisoners who request them, who are mostly female inmates.

A New Year's Day proclamation by Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza that the elderly, children and people suffering from incurable diseases would be released early from prison has given the HIV-positive inmates some hope, but until then, Turemeshanye will keep lobbying the national AIDS control council for better food and access to drugs.


Theme (s): Care/Treatment - PlusNews,

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