By Robbie Flick, Health Programs Coordinator, Malawi
The atmosphere is one of celebration. Giant speakers play festive songs while brightly dressed dancers sing and stomp in unison on a wide stage. Young children and their parents dance in the space below, their arms carving wide, rhythmic arcs while scents of nsima (cornmeal) and roasted goat fill the air.
The celebration is one of life and health here at the Neno Community Support Initiative (NCSI), a PIH-sponsored event that brings together a community in rural Malawi that has been heavily burdened by the AIDS epidemic. But it’s also a community of strength and resilience.
The event opens with community members sharing their stories, stressing the importance of getting tested and treated for HIV.
“My village thought I would surely die,” one woman says, “but thanks to the drugs I receive, I can stand before you today.”
The MC, a dynamic volunteer named Felix, hops on stage to draw the analogy between the spread of HIV and the spread of a wildfire. To demonstrate, he asks a community member to venture into the crowd and shake hands with two people. The three then each shake hands with two more. After several rounds, Felix calls all of the “infected” to the stage. Half the community marches forward – a visceral lesson.
Presentations and skits follow, punctuated by upbeat music, dancing, and poetry. Discussions cover a number of health-related topics, including how to make your own fertilizer and how to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV, which are followed by a song about preventing typhoid. A skit about the importance of caring for children orphaned by HIV is followed by another promoting the vocational schools provided by the community-based organizations that PIH supports – schools that provide vulnerable members of the community with marketable skills. The event finishes with a Q&A session with health experts to help answer specific questions from the community.
But a small shed off to the side of the stage houses perhaps the most powerful component of this event. For four hours, a steady stream of men, women, and children have been filtering in and out. They are getting tested for HIV; all tests are optional, offered at no cost, and are accompanied with counseling from trained staff. Those who are moved by the support and encouragement radiating from the event can simply walk over, get a quick finger prick, and have results in 15 minutes.
Events like NCSI epitomize PIH’s approach to addressing the root causes of disease in places like Malawi. By empowering community members to run the event and fostering a celebratory and supportive atmosphere, NCSI reduces the stigma of HIV and other illnesses, evidenced by the dozens of individuals getting tested for the first time. It supports positive living and gives practical lessons – delivered by community members – on how to do so. Perhaps most importantly, it provides a venue for individuals to get together to support each other and to work together in solidarity towards building a healthier community.