I am Samson Njolomole, community program and external relations manager for Abwenzi Pa Za Umoyo, Partners In Health’s Malawian sister organization. I'm responsible for activities surrounding prevention and health education, community mobilization, sensitization, and awareness, and I help represent the organization to stakeholders.
I came home to Neno, Malawi, in 2007 because I was sick. At the time, I was in a different part of the country working, but the manager told me that I had to leave because they could not afford to keep someone who was sick. I had no option but to come back home.
I was very sick. My mother thought I had died and that someone else was responding to her calls. So I had to go home to show her I was alive, to make her happy. When I returned home, my father saw how much I had wasted away. I was so skinny, and I remember when I arrived home how my mother was really sorry to see me in this condition. My father told me that I had to go to the hospital for an HIV test. I didn’t want to do that because I was thinking of all the problems and issues associated with HIV: the infection, the stigma, how people are marginalized.
It took a couple of weeks before I could make my decision. My father came to see me every night to remind me that I had to think about going to hospital for HIV testing. There was an organization [PIH] providing basic care to people who were sick. At times, I would get angry because mentioning HIV to me was like telling me all the bad things in the world. But he would say, “Son, I’ve been advising you to take care of your life. This is a bold decision that you have to make. I love you and I want you to take action, because otherwise you are going to die and I don’t want you to die.” He was so passionate about what he believed and about what he had seen in PIH.
I remember one night I fell so sick and I just gave up on my life. I thought that it was the end. So my father took me to the hospital, I was admitted, and they told me the next morning to go for an HIV test. The results came back positive. It was in July 2007 that I learned I was HIV positive.
I was really nervous. I was totally down. So many people had already died in my community. I had lost at least three of my sisters to the same infection.
This was not what I expected. Before my test I was thinking: How do people get HIV? Are these people not smart enough to avoid it? Can’t they prevent it? Is there any way these people can stay in this world with HIV?
If I don’t speak about it, then people in my community are going to die.
After my test came back positive, the clinicians referred me to an antiretroviral clinic through PIH’s HIV program, where I met Dr. Jon Crocker. The way he talked to me and told me the story about PIH, about how they would help provide medical care and social services and nutrition, gave me encouragement. If I take my medications properly, I can make it again. It was like my second chance to live.
I went home and started taking my drugs every day; barely two months later I found myself strong and healthy. That is when I started on this mission to tell other people about my experience. If I don’t speak about it, then people in my community are going to die.
It wasn’t easy to speak about it at first because a lot of people knew me in the community. When I came home and I was wasted away, there were people literally pointing fingers at me: “Look at Samson, he has HIV, he is going to die,” they’d say.
It is never easy to think about how to disclose your status to your neighbors and your friends and family.
In October 2007 [three months after being diagnosed with HIV], Dr. Jon Crocker and the team said that they could give me a job as a translator. I wasn’t doing anything at the time. I told them I would love to work for PIH based on what I saw and how they cared for the very poor people.
I so believed in the mission: whatever it takes to provide a preferential option for the poor. It’s a very definitive statement. It’s a mission that propels us to do more, that goes beyond the blame so many place on poor people.
So they employed me in October 2007 as a translator. I was working in the HIV program. Every morning I was working; I would stand up and tell people about HIV. I would give myself as an example: “When I came here, you saw me and you saw how I looked. Now look at me! We can do the same thing for our brothers, our sisters, our relatives. And we can reduce a lot of deaths that are happening due to HIV.”
I grew up with the organization. I was promoted to a supervisor in the clinic, preparing all the paperwork for the patients and for the doctors. We were seeing 600, 700 patients a day, from 6 in the morning to 10 at night. It was really a tough time.
They then promoted me to be HIV program coordinator. I was collaborating with the Ministry of Health at the district hospital, working with the clinics to make sure everything we were doing was supported, and making sure everything was dignified for patients. I worked with PIH doctors to think outside the box, to say “what else can we do?” If we can scale ART (antiretroviral) services to other clinics, then the burden would be reduced. A lot of people died because they could not find transport money to ferry them to those places.
There has been a significant change in Neno since 2007, when I came. Back then, there were just five patients who were taking ART. We have now seen that number climb to over 6,000. This tells you that we are actually reaching out to the people, and more people are joining us.
I’m here to help you, we can walk together to the hospital. That is the spirit of togetherness.
You can have a beautiful hospital, but if you don’t have doctors in there, if you don’t have the drugs, the people you are actually sharing that beautiful hospital with will die. If they go there and can’t get treatment, they go back home and die. But if you stock the hospital, if you provide clinicians and other human resources, the people know they will get the help they need.
PIH goes beyond just giving the treatment; we have programs that complement what traditional authorities are doing and what the government is doing. People from the community accompany the patients and say, “You need to take your medications. I’m here to help you, we can walk together to the hospital.” That is the spirit of togetherness.