The tree is a powerful symbol of stability and resilience across much of Africa.
Trees provide shelter from the blazing sun, traditional medicines, building materials, firewood, and food. So, it was fitting that a group of 30 women chose to gather beneath a tree in Welgeval village, South Africa, in 2002 and decided they had to take action.
"When we became aware of the deadly effect of HIV and AIDS in our community, we realized we had to do something," says Itumeleng Modimola. "It was not easy when we started; people were not used to the idea of caregivers and because of the stigma around HIV and AIDS, people would pretend they were not at home when we came to visit."
But the women persevered, and in 2006 their efforts were rewarded when the local traditional council offered them land and a building as a base for their organization. Today Modimola is the manager of Pholo Modi Wa Sechaba, a thriving community-based HIV/AIDS project in Welgeval in South Africa's North West Province. The organization—whose name means "health is the root of the nation" in the local language, Setswana—is dedicated to overcoming the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS in the local community.
Support for children and adults
South Africa has the world's largest number of HIV infections—an estimated 5.5 million of the country's 48 million people live with HIV. Women are hardest hit. In 2005, one in three women in South Africa aged 30–34 were living with HIV.
Every day the Pholo Modi Wa Sechaba site is alive with activity as children from AIDS-affected families crowd into the small day care room and spill out onto the dusty playground. In the afternoon, they are joined by their elder siblings and other schoolchildren for a healthy meal and supervised afterschool activities where they learn life skills—such as how to prevent HIV/AIDS. The once-barren garden is now green with tidy rows of vegetables. The foundation and walls of a new community center are taking shape nearby, the material and labor provided by members of the organization.
Pholo Modi Wa Sechaba runs a support group for people living with HIV/AIDS and has 20 caregivers who provide home-based care services to almost 300 families in four villages. It is a member of the AIDS Consortium, a South African national umbrella organization that helps community groups struggling to provide services for people living with HIV/AIDS. A grant from Oxfam America is helping the AIDS Consortium extend its reach to the North West Province, where Pholo Modi Wa Sechaba and some 100 other community organizations will get additional training to raise and manage money, design and carry out better community programs, and train their staff.
"A long way to go"
With the AIDS Consortium's help and growing awareness about HIV/AIDS in the community, Modimola says her organization is making progress.
"The situation has changed for the better; people are more aware of HIV and take informed decisions to protect themselves and their families. But we still have a long way to go. Government and other partners need to increase access to anti-retroviral [ARV] treatment and health services in our area," says Modimola. "While we are doing the best we can with limited resources," she admits, "training and retaining caregivers...is an ongoing challenge."
Modimola has built strong partnerships with the local clinic, tribal authorities, and government departments. Pholo Modi Wa Sechaba receives an annual grant from the provincial government to provide food to 60 families and a monthly stipend for the caregivers. Once this grant is depleted, however, Modimola predicts many caregivers will be forced to quit; they cannot afford to work without pay.
Local caregivers provide a vital service to the community and fill the gaps in the national health care system. Often they are the first to identify members of the community who may have become infected with the HIV virus and the last line of care for those with AIDS. While ARV treatment and hospital care is the responsibility of the state, there are not enough doctors, nurses, and hospitals to cope with the spread of the disease.
Like the tree beneath which Pholo Modi Wa Sechaba was founded, Modimola and local caregivers serve as symbols in their community. Their steady commitment in the face of challenges has given strength to many.