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Responding to the needs of the hour

31 August 2015, Nairobi – Jesuit AIDS projects are shaped in response to the “needs of the hour” and constantly seek to adapt to the changing scenarios of AIDS in Africa.

During the Nairobi meeting in July, Jesuits and co-workers involved in different aspects of AIDS ministry across sub-Saharan Africa shared about their projects and the challenges they face in their work.

The reports by the participants revealed a rich tapestry of diverse and creative interventions woven together by common threads – those things that command our attention everywhere and that we tend to approach in a similar way from place to place. 

The strongest ‘threads’, tightly interwoven, are: the multi-faceted fight against persistent stigma; activities to promote sustainability, both the self-sufficiency of those we serve and of our projects; HIV prevention, especially among youth; access to healthcare in the community; supporting orphans and vulnerable children.

However, to continue with the tapestry analogy, the threads and patterns are shifting all the time. “We have to look at changing needs all the time,” said Fr Kelly, who runs a parish home-based care project in rural Zambia. This is just what he did with his team, making a shift towards setting up self-help groups that has been successful. “Our clients are no longer dependent on the program, they don’t need us anymore,” Fr Kelly says gleefully.

Right now, one urgent need is to reach out to teenagers living with HIV as a generation of children, infected before or during birth or during the first months of life, grows up. Then there is the need to prevent other young people from getting HIV – they remain one of the most vulnerable groups, especially girls, hence the importance of AHAPPY.

The meeting focused on the best practices that are being developed by Jesuit AIDS projects as they grow in experience and expertise. Participants shared a wealth of insights and ways of working, too many to be reported here.

One clear strength is that our projects are implemented in community. Fr Kelly said that working with village headmen and with the community radio was key. Fr Angelo from St Joseph the Worker Parish in Kangemi, a poor suburb of Nairobi, singled out “community conversations” as a best practice, “sitting down with people, talking, sharing feelings and coming out with solutions together”. The parish runs the Uzima program that has several interventions to support people living with HIV, to encourage voluntary counselling and testing, and other prevention activities. One novel initiative is what they call “moonlight testing”, for people who will only go for an HIV test after hours, to make sure they are not seen. 

The overall impression was that of a comprehensive approach, as people from places as diverse as Congo, Zambia, Kenya and Burundi talked about offering not one but many services to meet the different needs of people living with HIV: the need to accept myself with HIV; the need to take medication regularly and to live healthily and positively; the need to eat well; the need to earn a living; the need to find a space to belong and to contribute in family and community.

This all-embracing support, offered in the context of a ‘journey’ towards life to the full, the vision of AJAN, really does help people to live positively without necessarily encouraging dependency, until they reach a point where they can earn their own income and begin reaching out to others themselves. As Fr Jean-Charles from Congo said: “We see how it is joyful to accompany someone from the start, when they are so ill they can hardly walk, and to follow them until they are able to earn their own living.” 

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