Last week I spent my days observing home visits for HIV+ clients enrolled in our home-based care program. What this means is that I went around the village with the Head Nurse from the Clinic and a staff member from the NGO to meet with people to assess their health and what our organization can do to help. My role in these visits would be nominal at this point - mostly to meet more community members, gain a better understanding of the issues in Gabane, see how the visits are conducted, and offer suggestions for how to help the people and how to better coordinate and carry out visits. I was both anxious and excited to be a part of this side of the organization.
I have to admit, most of the visits were quite unsettling and it's taken me a week to adequately process. Throughout training, Peace Corps threw statistics at us and discussed the many issues in Botswana but it is not the same until you have seen it with your own eyes. In a sense, I was sheltered from the reality having only seen one side before now - the gleeful children at play in the OVC centers. While it was heartbreaking to know their stories, I had not been invited into the homes to see what HIV/AIDS looks like in the raw. In actually going into the homes, I was able to clearly see the difference between simply having knowledge of something and then actually experiencing it. This reality brought my consciousness to a whole other level. As we went from home to home, greeting and meeting with clients and their families, I was struck by the magnitude of devastation that HIV/AIDS has brought to this village and the sheer poverty that exists. One household in particular paints a clear picture. Let me tell you that story:
We took an off-road path that bumped and thrashed the combi around and then turned into a small compound. There was one dilapidated stone building and then overgrown weeds waist high. I thought we were turning around to go back the way we came, seeing as how there was no room to do so on the path we had taken. But then the driver turned the combi's engine off and the Head Nurse said to me "lets go" as she opened the sliding door to get out. I was a little startled but got myself together as we approached the front door, which appeared to be nothing but a piece of tin roofing leaning up against the opening. We knocked ("ko ko") and entered the one-room building. There was a young girl sitting on the floor on a blanket and a mostly naked woman laying on the bed that took up the majority of the space in the house. We were there to see the woman that was now mostly bed-ridden. She was skin and bones and more feeble than any person I have ever seen. Even still, she kept a smile on her face (as much as she could muster anyway) and spoke to us in a joyous tone. She told us that she had been having trouble getting to her doctor's appointments and requested transport as it was available. We committed to help her. She then informed us that her daughter, who was sitting on the floor next to us, had just tested positive for HIV. (Transactional sex is common here, which made me wonder: With this family so poverty stricken, could this girls' status be a result of this? What kind of person would take advantage of a young girl that needs help? These are some of the issues we face every day.) The Head Nurse talked with the teenager for some time and they agreed she would come to the Clinic for counseling and then to enroll in our program. I could have cried in that moment. Looking at this family that was so poor, meeting this mother who was so sick but who was keeping as positive an attitude as possible, and then learning that her daughter was infected too - it was so devastating. What lessons were being missed in this home? in this community? Why do Batswana still refer to HIV/AIDS as someone "being sick" instead of calling it what it is? How can I help start the discussion? Will the suffering ever stop if people don't face the truth and learn from it?
The home visits have left me with a lot of questions and some frustrations that I need to work through. I wonder about how much of an impact we, as Peace Corps Volunteers, can truly make. Real change comes from the community and from within. But I needed to be educated and shown the reality here if I am going to have any chance of helping. I need this knowledge if I am going to be effective, however difficult it may be to see. And, in the end, it has made me even more compassionate because I have seen what it does to people and to their families. This compassion is what will rededicate me when the work gets tough. These are good people and they deserve more.