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DRC: “You need to teach us how to look after ourselves”

“You need to teach us how to look after ourselves. Giving us ideas and skills will do us more good and make us feel more worthy than giving us flour, because then we will realize that we are strong and can do plenty of things for ourselves. What’s more, one of the things that kills us is the lack of activities to fill the time and to fill our minds. Sometimes, because they are idle, our minds wander and stir up memories that we’d like to leave behind.”

Wise and moving words, which prompted a parish program in the city of Kisangani to do more to help its beneficiaries to earn a living.

The Jesuit parish of Christ the King runs Parlons-SIDA (Let’s talk about AIDS), a program that supports some 280 people living with HIV, orphans and vulnerable children in Congo’s Eastern Province.

During an evaluation in October 2013, beneficiaries said they wanted to become more independent. They recognized that they had health problems but nonetheless wanted to take up work, to give them value in their own eyes, to sustain themselves and to forget their problems. So Parlons-SIDA launched income-generating activities (IGAs) to make both project and beneficiaries more self-sufficient.

The Abika program supports the IGAs of 36 people; their work includes farming, baking bread, and the sale of oil, manioc, rice and other food.

What’s more, a piece of land belonging to the parish is being cultivated, yielding a crop of corn, soya, manioc and fruit. Some of this goes to feed those who turn to Parlons-SIDA for help. This has helped many people who were weak and who had stopped their antiretroviral treatment (ARVs) because taking the medication on an empty stomach was making them ill.

However, much as the people want to earn their own living, they still need plenty of help to meet their most basic needs because they are very poor. Parlons-SIDA bought medicines against prescription for nearly 200 people in 2013, mostly antibiotics, vitamins and anti-inflammatory treatment. All the medical tests of beneficiaries were paid for, including CD4 counts and x-rays, and hospital bills too.

The parish project also pays rent and arrears of water and electricity bills, buys clothes and sheets, pays for transport if people lived far from Kisangani and covers the school fees of some orphans and vulnerable children. Homes that are very dilapidated and damaged are repaired.

The Parlons-SIDA team has some simple stated aims. One is that “no one among us should die of AIDS”. But they do lose people: out of 153 supported by the project, nine died in 2013 – some came for help when it was too late, others had stopped taking their medication or were abandoned by their families.

In fact, one of the awful worries tormenting some beneficiaries of Parlons-SIDA is the fear of imminent and ignominious death. They are also plagued by stigma, poverty, physical weakness and opportunistic infections, especially TB. Not surprisingly, many fall into self-blame, discouragement and loneliness. Those who are single long to marry and to have children.

The Parlons-SIDA team offers intense moral support to help people keep their spirits up and to recover both physically and psychologically. Support includes counselling, home visits, shared prayer and Eucharistic celebrations, all geared towards helping people to live in dignity.

The parish project also carries out educational activities to prevent the spread of HIV across the city and its environs. In 2013, Parlons-SIDA reached nearly 8,400 people through awareness activities: seminars, film screenings, radio broadcasts and discussions with youth organised by peer educators. The activities were held in Kisangani and in the remote mineral-rich areas of Banalia and Buta (around 260km from the city); here awareness events targeted artisanal miners in the quarries of Manghi and Lolima.

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