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A turning point in Africa?

The 6th Pan African Conference of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Algiers in September 2004 was seen as a turning point. HIV/AIDS is still cutting Africans down in their prime in huge numbers. But there are some grounds for optimism, including belated access to antiretroviral drug therapy.

The Mhlongo children, Dumisani, Busisiwe and Sobondo, are almost certainly among Africa’s millions of AIDS orphans. But if their mother and father — members of the continent’s ‘missing generation’ — knew for sure it was AIDS that was killing them, they never confirmed it to the children’s elderly grandparents.

“Their father died in 2000 and their mother passed on later the same year,” says their grandmother Takazile Mhlongo, 73, who is convinced the parents died of AIDS-related illnesses. “We cannot work any more,” she says. “We cannot meet the needs of these children. We were relying on their parents for our own security.”

This story, from the village of Ndindima in Richard’s Bay, South Africa, is repeated countless times across Africa.

In late afternoon the Mhlongo children trek home from as productive a day at school as they can manage after, yet again, having had no breakfast. On some days there will be the compensation of a meal of maize porridge with vegetables or beans; on others, they will go to bed hungry.

The family’s crops have failed because of poor rainfall, and now they rely on a vegetable garden supported by the South African Red Cross Society’s home-care programme.

UNAIDS last year estimated that more than 25 million people are living with HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa — nearly 80 per cent of the world’s HIV total. Some 10 per cent of Africa’s entire population — 90 million people — could be HIV-positive in 20 years time, the United Nations (UN) has warned.

HIV/AIDS has devastated the most productive groups in society, and has significantly eroded food security as
agricultural output has fallen. This, combined with locust invasions, drought and failed government policies, left millions of African households dependent on food aid.

“Our major concern as a continent has been to break the symbiotic link between HIV/AIDS and food insecurity,”
says Emma Kundishora, the secretary general of the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society. “Serious efforts havebeen made, but a lot of work remains to be done.” In the year since the Algiers conference, she says more National
Societies integrated food security with other programmes such as HIV/AIDS and disaster management “to address the key issues holistically”.

An Ethiopian volunteer caregiver, Yshi Jashaker, shows a handful of free antiretrovirals given to HIV/AIDS patients.


Antiretroviral therapy

A few more people in Africa, if only a very few of those who could benefit from them, are now receiving antiretroviral therapy (ART).

In June, a joint report by UNAIDS and the World Health Organization (WHO) said the pace of ART was “continuing
to accelerate” in developing countries, but bottlenecks persisted. “In sub-Saharan Africa,” the agencies added, “the region most severely affected by HIV, approximately 500,000 people are currently receiving ART — more than triple the number of people on ART in June 2004.”

The Namibia Red Cross distributes food parcels to people on ART in Caprivi, 1,500 kilometres north-west of the Mhlongo children’s village and geographically at the epicentre of the southern African AIDS crisis. Says Secretary-General Razia Essack-Kauaria: “We have seen a large number of our clients regaining their health and working again for their families. Children who would have been orphans today now have the chance to enjoy parental care for years to come.”

The Algiers conference agreed more effort should be directed towards the key objectives of reducing food insecurity, HIV/AIDS, and sickness and death in vulnerable populations. African National Societies resolved to pursue these objectives “with renewed commitment and vigour”, says Kundishora, who is also a member of the Pan-African Coordinating Team (PACT). “Since Algiers, we’ve noticed a great improvement in service delivery by many African National Societies,” she remarks.

Between Algiers and the previous meeting in Ouagadougou in 2000, virtually all National Societies in Africa developed HIV/AIDS programmes of one kind or another.

The Baphalali Swaziland Red Cross Society food security project (see box) in Sigombeni, where the National Society has one of its rural clinics, has involved new thinking on how communities can benefit from integrated programming. Established Swaziland food security projects include small-scale poultry farms and kitchen gardens, and two communal food security projects have now been set up alongside the Red Cross clinic, which offers HIV testing and ART.

New figures released by the health ministry this year show that nearly one-third of Swazi teenagers aged 15 and over are HIV-positive. For pregnant women, the figure is 42 per cent — believed to be the highest HIV infection rate in the world.

In Algiers, African National Societies again recognized that the way to reduce vulnerability is through boosting community resilience.

Milk, fruit trees, beehives

“We do not want to reduce people to passive beneficiaries, but empower them,” said Asha Mohammed, deputy secretarygeneral of the Kenya Red Cross Society and PACT chairman. “We are training farmers to improve food security. Income-generating projects have been supported through the same initiative.” The Red Cross provides goats for milk, fruit-tree seedlings and beehives.

The Algiers conference embraced partners from civil society, the private sector, the UN and other humanitarian organizations, as well as National Societies from other continents. It was seen as a turning point.

In Mohammed’s view: “We have created synergies with UN agencies such as the World Food Programme on food provision, WHO on health and UNICEF on other humanitarian issues.” She believes the private sector has also “woken up” and realized that it has a role to play as,ultimately, business relies on the same communities we work with”.

Nestle, DHL and Unilever are among the multinational corporations now actively supporting National Societies in Africa. For example, Nestle supports the Kenya Red Cross Society’s HIV/ AIDS peer education and workplace programmes. In turn, the Red Cross helps Nestle to implement an HIV/AIDS workplace programme for its own staff.

As always, the vast network of local volunteers is the unique strength of African National Societies. Volunteers, drawn from the communities they serve, are increasingly taking full ownership of community projects.For the Movement, only boldness can provide the way forward.

As International Federation President Juan Manuel Suárez del Toro wrote two years ago (Southern Africa’s Axis of Evils, June 2003): “What is happening is unprecedented, and doing business as usual will not halt it. The humanitarian world is deep in uncharted territory, and the map from the past will not guide us through the future. No one knows what really lies ahead…”

Ten-year-old Dumisani Mhlongo working in the vegetable garden that now represents the family’s only source of income. In times of drought the South African Red Cross Society supports families such as his with seeds, fertilizer and other necessities.

Tapiwa Gomo
Tapiwa Gomo is International Federation senior regional information officer at the regional delegation in Harare


“HIV is not the end”

Jane Dlamini insists the support she gets from the Swaziland Red Cross health centre at Sigombeni has helped keep her alive since she found out she was HIV-positive. Jane has become a symbol of hope ever since the fateful test. She is a member of a local support group providing counselling to other clients in a community where stigma is still intense.

“I was in and out of the hospital, but after I got counselling from the Red Cross clinic it dawned on me that having HIV is not the end, but even the beginning of a new era.

“I am currently on ART. I got some seeds for my 100-square-metre garden. We also work on the communal gardens in our chiefdom, which helps feed both home-care clients and orphans.

“For me, the most important thing is to be able to provide food for my children, give them love and ensure they go to school until they are old enough to look after themselves.

“Through this Red Cross project we are able to cater for orphans and help guardians, especially the elderly, by making food available for children.

“Children whose mothers and fathers are part of the project also have something to fall back on when their parents die.”



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