Makoni district, a couple of hours drive east of Harare, once had the highest incidence of HIV and AIDS in Zimbabwe, according to the district medical officer. Prevention campaigns have been successful. The figures are down. But it is still the case that virtually everyone in Makoni has been affected by the epidemic, even if they have personally avoided infection.
One of the purposes of today’s meeting at the former Makoni Country Club is to commemorate those who have died of AIDS. All things considered, the mood is astonishingly cheerful. Some of this may be traditional Zimbabwean good humour in the face of tribulation. It is a genuine feel-good moment for the volunteers who form a majority of the 150-strong gathering.
The volunteers are the heroes of the day. They work in their local communities, providing care and counselling, perhaps for three hours a day up to three days a week. They get travel expenses and the odd T shirt, but no other material reward.
“Mainly what they need is recognition,” says Portipher Guta, director of Family AIDS Caring Trust Rusape, an ActionAid partner organisation.
Volunteers provide FACT Rusape with a formidable range of talents, skills and expertise, which they not afford to pay for. “We cannot as an organisation employ medical doctors, we cannot employ nurses, we cannot employ preachers,” Portipher says. “By having volunteers coming on board it means we have got diversity of expertise.”
Right now the volunteers are dealing not only with HIV and AIDS but with an outbreak of cholera. They have also been engaged in 16 days of activism opposing violence against women, which here means mainly domestic violence. The usual causes of domestic friction - including money, sex and alcohol – are multiplied when HIV is involved.
Zimbabwe passed a Domestic Violence Act in 2007, but social attitudes have to change. In a mini-drama performed by the volunteers a woman is attacked by a drunken husband. A counsellor persuades her to go a police Victim Friendly Unit. Only then does she realise that she has rights and can do something about her husband’s violence.
The district administrator and district medical officer are both at the meeting. They face tough questioning on such issues as the shortage of medicines, and the official HIV and AIDS figures. The official figures are almost certainly too low. Since many people are never tested for HIV and some die at home of AIDS-related conditions without ever entering these statistics.