Kajera HIV support group

Arriving in Kajera, the men lounging around the local shops scrutinise us without smiling. Kajera feels like a depressed place. Alcoholism amongst men is common according to Odeth. It’s the women who keep the community going.

Mama Keven meets and welcomes us. Dressed in a faded pink skirt and top with a multi-coloured chitenge around her waist, she looks strong and healthy. Just a few months ago she was seriously ill in hospital with typhoid. She leads APRECOM’s support group for people living with HIV and also supports families living with children with disability in Kajera.

It’s the support group that we have come to see today. We find seven people sitting out in the garden under the hot sun. Upon our arrival, they lead us indoors where chairs and mats have been ranged around the walls of a reasonably large room. The group meets once a month to share encouragement and their joys and sorrows and to worship together. They are obviously a close-knit group. I am interested that there are the very elderly amongst them as well as young adults.

There is no doubt that with the free anti-retroviral medication and medical support that those with HIV now receive in Rwanda, the prognosis for their lives has greatly improved. Many live well with the disease. But inadequate nutrition and poor environments such as those experienced here in Kajera can cause the immune system to wear down making those with HIV susceptible to deterioration in their condition despite the drug therapy that is available. There are no options for employment in Kajera. That’s why, helped by BCT and APRECOM, a garden was started in January this year by those in the HIV support group. It was planted out with soya, tomatoes, beans, peanuts and maize. The harvest was very good and the support group members and their children now have better nutrition and are healthier. The local leaders have said to the other villagers that they must learn from the APRECOM garden, because local villagers only tend to grow a single vegetable like cassava, rather than a variety. So the garden is acting as a model for others.

The group provides its members with a sense of belonging, solidarity and with practical support. Worship and prayer are integral activities as is sharing stories of the good things that have happened since they last met. ‘I was very sick when you last saw me and you prayed for me. After that, the illness left me and now I am fine,’ testifies one woman. Gradually other members join us until the room we are in is full. Currently just 15 people meet monthly in the group. ‘There are 30 other people that we know of in the community who are HIV positive who would like to join us,’ explains Mama Keven, ‘but we have had to say no to them. We don’t have anywhere to meet and I can’t cope with leading a larger group.’

‘That’s so sad,’ I respond. ‘There must be a solution. What other ways of structuring yourselves can you think of that would make it possible for you to enlarge the group?’ ‘We can try and find a larger meeting place,’ suggests one member. ‘There isn’t anywhere!’ the rest respond. ‘We could look for new leaders amongst us who could help Mama Keven’, proposes another. ‘That sounds like a plan,’ I say. ‘I have another idea for you to consider. What about if you meet in smaller neighbourhood groups of ten people in member’s homes once a month, and then all meet together once a quarter? Each group could have a leader. That way, you would have the capacity to welcome others to your group.’ ‘That’s a good idea,’ nod several of those present. ‘It could work. We will have a meeting together and plan how we are going to organise ourselves.’

Odeth shares some scripture and prays for the group. I finish with a game in which they have to pass a small green ball to each other without using their hands. ‘Think of different ways of doing things,’ I challenge them. Riotous laughter breaks out as the group unsuccessfully tries to pass the ball using their arms and armpits. ‘What about using your feet?’ I suggest. Cheers go up as members of the group manage to successfully pass the ball around the circle of people in this way. ‘What have we learned?’ I ask. ‘We’ve learned to have fun!’ laughs a young girl. It’s not the answer I was looking for, but in a society where people rarely have fun, it’s an encouraging response.