SWAZILAND: A dialogue to defeat AIDS

Photo: James Hall/IRIN
Swazis are telling health officials what they need to fight HIV/AIDS
LUBOMBO, 29 September 2010 (PlusNews) - Communities in Swaziland are coming together as never before to tackle the HIV/AIDS epidemic that has so deeply affected them.

"We will defeat AIDS, we the women of this village!" chant a group of older Swazi women wearing voluminous black skirts and bright red wraps in Ka-Vikizuula, near the Mozambique border in the east of the country.

Government officials and bureaucrats from the capital, Mbabane, and the staff of health NGOs, received a warm welcome from the 200 community members assembled in a tent set up at the chief's residence, but this time they had come to listen rather than prescribe to the villagers.

"The NGOs are here to introduce themselves to us; they will hear what we want," said Isabella Katamzi, a former Senator, now the National Coordinator of child welfare group Banakekeli Bebantfwana Bendlunkhulu, who has led the fight for more grassroots involvement in AIDS prevention and mitigation programmes.

"The people will tell them they want more home-based care, more drugs at the clinics, more nurses; and the NGOs will tell the people about the services they offer. We in the villages know our problems better than the people in Mbabane," she told IRIN/PlusNews.

In Ka-Vikizuula they want more attention paid to the psychological needs of orphans and vulnerable children; they also want the rural road network to be extended to make it easier for people to reach health facilities.

"Our voices are the last to be heard, but we have the most to say. This has to do with us, so why should outsiders tell us what must be done? We must tell them what must be done," said Thuli Thwala, 56, a grandmother of 10.

The women's traditional dance and a high-kicking warriors' dance by a group of athletic young men were followed by a play performed by a group from the commercial capital, Manzini.

The drama was based on an earlier meeting with community members who, led by a trained facilitator, had offered ideas for a story highlighting the way AIDS had entered their village. The lively interpretation of marital infidelity, and the seduction of young people by well-off older men and women, was watched intently.

''Our voices are the last to be heard, but we have the most to say. This has to do with us, so why should outsiders tell us what must be done?''
Since the beginning of the year the group has performed locally created plays in 20 of the country's 365 chiefdoms as part of the Community Opinion Dialogues initiative, partly sponsored by UNAIDS.

"We know how to take these issues and bring them alive," said the troupe's leader, Modison Magagula. "The people are still shy to talk about sex, but they are learning to discuss [HIV/AIDS] as a health issue."

After the performance, the facilitator led a discussion about the drama and asked for real-life instances of the issues it raised. "We have those problems here, it is true. I know for a fact that when some of the men come back from jobs outside the country, their wives - who were never sick before - fall ill from this thing," said one man, who, like many others, was reluctant to say the word "AIDS" aloud.

Health officials had often spoken of the need to involve rural residents in healthcare, but little was done before the community dialogues. "The people are responding well," said Esau Dube, Administrator of the Lubombo Region and a guest at the Ka-Vikizuula village meeting.

"You see how they open up during these community meetings. It is always humbling to hear the wisdom of the folk - they know best what they and their neighbours need."

The discussion also brought to light some common misconceptions about HIV and AIDS: confusion about the effectiveness and cultural appropriateness of male circumcision to reduce the risk of infection; the belief that intercourse with a virgin cures AIDS, and that encouraging condom use primarily benefited condom manufacturers.

The facilitator, assisted by the NGO representatives, offered facts, cleared confusion and provided education. At the end of the four-hour programme of drama, dance, song and discussion, the audience headed to the chief's kraal where a cow had been slaughtered for a feast.

Ernest Dlamini, recently assigned to the local clinic to provide HIV counselling and testing, commented: "We are here to make friends, and enjoy some meat."


Theme (s): HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), Prevention - PlusNews,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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