The Women of Adilisha

Friday, July 14, 2006 | Mwanza, Tanzania

Women come to the water's edge each morning to barter with fishermen over the daily catch, which they will sell in the local market.
One component of our program here in Mwanza is time spent volunteering at a variety of local NGOs. Charlie and I recently spent our first days at Adilisha, a small organization founded in 1999 to promote responsible parenting practices and healthy families. In sub-Saharan Africa, perhaps the greatest threat to the healthy physical and mental development of children is HIV/AIDS. Thus, Adilisha's mission of helping families has, over the past several years, increasingly meant focusing on providing assistance to families affected by this illness.

In Tanzania, such families are numerous, though exactly how numerous is never certain. While the official infection rate is quoted at around 9 percent—and is, as in many countries of the region, likely much higher than the rates reported by governments—it is known to be even higher within certain groups. For example, in hospitals, pregnant women are always tested for HIV, and in recent
years nearly 30 percent of them have been found to be positive.

Recently, Adilisha begun a program to encourage local parents to write a "Family Memory Book." With such a book, if an HIV-positive parent does one day pass away, their children will have a significant document explaining the history of their family, lists of extended family members upon whom the children might rely for help, information on parents' aspirations for their children, etc.

In the absence of parents, such a book may mean the difference between returning to a village to live with extended family and living on the street, as many AIDS orphans unfortunately do. In urban Africa, many immigrants from the countryside and especially their children seem to "float," living without direction, no longer rooted in the traditional social foundation of small rural communities. Adilisha hopes the Memory Book will prove to be the necessary link between individuals and their heritage, and thus the best tool to prevent children from joining the growing ranks of Africa's urban poor.

Given the brief amount of time which Charlie and I will be able to work at Adilisha, we have taken on the modest task of writing a history for the organization, to be used in a number of their publications and grant proposals. In addition, in order to better understand the daily operations of the organization's work, we accompanied Suitbert, an HIV-positive volunteer at Adilisha, on a series of home visits yesterday afternoon.

First we visited Mary, a young HIV-positive woman living in a single-room home. Her only daughter lives elsewhere (exactly where we were not told) and the girl's father died several years ago of AIDS. As if Tanzania's already dismal employment market were not discouraging enough, because of the local stigma against HIV/AIDS, Mary has no hope of finding much work. Several afternoons a week she waitresses at a local bar and, Suitbert translated as she told us, "She works in the morning sometimes, somewhere."

In Mwanza, this shy, vague statement is telling. This city on the shores of Lake Victoria centers on its fishing industry, the main source of wealth in the area. Many of the city's poor or jobless women loiter around the docks and fish markets in the morning as the fishing boats, large and small, return to shore. In exchange for a small bucket of fish, which they can eat or sell to provide for themselves and their children, the women offer the fishermen sex, often spreading AIDS further.

Our second visit was to the home of a middle-aged woman named Dinnah, who supported her three children on her own after her husband died of AIDS eighteen months ago, within two years of the couple getting tested and learning that they were HIV-positive. Her husband was a self-made business man who owned several pieces of property and a few buses in the city, besides holding some assets in the bank at the time of his death. When he passed away, in an effort to seize his wealth his brothers and sisters hurried to a local judge and insisted that they were the rightful inheritors, said Dinnah. The judge was told that Dinnah's husband had died without any wife or children, and granted the man's siblings full control of his assets.

By the time the grief-stricken Dinnah realized what had happened, her husband's bank account was empty, never to be refilled. The ensuing court battle over his property, as Dinnah recounted, was complicated by her in-laws' accusations that Dinnah was a witch who had "bewitched her husband with the spell that had led to his death." Today, legal proceedings behind her, the deeply religious Seventh-Day Adventist mother of three hopes that the rent from the properties will suffice to continue supporting her and her children, including their school fees.

"Well, it's four o'clock, time for us to be going, and shouldn't you be getting on your broom about now?" Suitbert asks her in Swahili, winking. As the two chuckle gleefully, slapping hands, he explains to us in English, "You see, those of us with HIV, we must laugh. It keeps our immunity up."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Andrew ... you sure are having some great "adventures" in Tanzania. I forwarded your blog to our family and friends. Your narratives are delightful to read.

One final mother comment ... when you go away, I usually say, through tears, "Promise me you'll wear sunscreen." This time, may I add ... "Don't drink the water please."

I love you - Mom

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