“They used to laugh at us because we are HIV-positive. Now we are the ‘white people’. So we want more training in skills please.” Mary grins engagingly as she explains why she loves being part of a self-help group (SHG) in her parish in rural Zambia. Her grin becomes wider when I ask why ‘white people’? “It means we’re better off,” says Gregory, my translator at a meeting of Mary’s group.
“Better off” sums it up. Mary is one of nearly 400 people living with HIV who have joined SHGs that are part of the home-based care project of Chikuni Parish in southern Zambia. The SHG concept hinges on harnessing the innate potential of each individual. At Chikuni, it is helping people to become self-sufficient, to earn enough money not only to look after themselves and their families, but also to save and to dream of a tangibly better future.
“Before I couldn’t afford to buy anything,” says Jennifer, another group member. “Now I can plant seeds, grow crops, feed myself and send my children to school.”
Chikuni Parish started running self-help groups, a step beyond its more traditional support groups for people with HIV, in 2012. The dividends are already evident in the pooled savings of the groups and the loans they offer members. The modest loans go to financing children’s education, family businesses – largely centred round agriculture – and other needs like travel and funeral costs.
The buoyant self-esteem and cheer of Mary and her friends are further proof of the success of the SHGs. Sitting on a circle of benches under the trees, they are laughing, clapping, singing and having a good time. But their joking doesn’t deflect from the serious matters at hand: they explain clearly why they like being in the group and make solid suggestions for improvement.
Two of the best perks are training and distribution of seeds that are paid for later. “When we started, we were called for seminars and learned a lot about livestock management,” says Innocent, one of the few men at the meeting. “We were taught about different varieties of vegetables that are cheaper and sell well on the market. We learned about management too: now we have businesses with clear goals and are monitoring our income. I could even save enough to buy some tools.”
Mary agrees: “Before we didn’t know how to take care of what we had, but with our new skills, we can manage our livestock in terms of vaccines and other care.”
The training has proved to be inspirational too: “I was so touched when the facilitator said, ‘Ideas are more important than money’,” continues Mary. “Sometimes I get money and squander it, but now I understand ideas are more important, so I am saving to see my ideas become reality.”
At the meeting, the SHG members repeatedly asked not only for more training, especially in business management and budgeting, but also to be held more accountable: “Come and see what we are doing,” said Innocent. “Otherwise how can you know what we are doing with the training you have given us?”
They asked for maize seeds too. Two women leapt off their bench to perform an impromptu dance of thanks when the group coordinator assured them they would get their seeds for their family businesses.
For Gregory, a leader of the Chikuni home-based care project, the secret of the success of the self-help groups lies in involving the family. “That’s why it’s so touching,” he enthuses. “These people have vision. They involve their families in their business, teaching them the skills they learn. Even the youngest child knows where the seeds are, where they came from and that they need to be repaid.”
Each self-help group meets once every week or two to discuss business, agreeing on interest rates and on rules to manage the operation of the group. There is no one leader: to encourage participation and ownership, members take it turns to lead.
Important as business matters are, the SHG is about much more. “The concept is based on four pillars, on the political, spiritual, social and economic elements of the individual,” says Stembisiwe Peme, Chikuni SHG coordinator. “The group members encourage each other, share the Word of God, and discuss issues that are affecting them, for example, difficulties to adhere to their ART medication.”
Despite the clear advantages of being part of a SHG, most of the clients of the Chikuni home-based care project have not signed up as yet. “This is a new concept and difficult for some people to get used to: they think ‘we’re sick, we can’t do it’,” says Stembisiwe.
But a mentality born of long dependency on hand-outs is slowly changing as people see the success of the SHGs that are up and running: “Now many others are saying they want to do the same.”
Those who are already part of the groups are setting a great example. Innocent said: “Now I’m not sick because I’m on ART and I can work. If this support – the medicine and the SHG – continues, we will do better still.”
Each SHG member is encouraged to set goals to envisage where she wants to be in two years time. Coming from all corners of the sprawling parish territory, each person has strikingly similar goals: a decent home, with a toilet and good roofing; enough food for their families; some livestock – goats, pigs, chickens; and an education for their children. And they are well on their way to achieving them. Mary, who was so taken by the concept of ideas over money, spoke for many when she said: “I want to build a house – I have no money but I have the idea so the foundation is already there!”