Friday, March 18, 2011

It takes a village...

Yesterday was our last day working with our home caregivers, which marked the end of our TBB service projects. From planting trees to teaching to shoveling poop to administering patient care; I have to honestly say that I’ve never put in so many hours of volunteer work. And yeah, it’s made me pretty good at manual labor. But what it’s also given me is much more hands-on, real world learning experience than I would have ever gotten the chance to partake in had I been at college or any other institute of learning this year. I’ve taken a dive right into the middle of each and every issue we’ve studied, seeing the problems with my own eyes while trying to contribute to the solution.

What that’s led me to here in South Africa is a reflection on community. In our readings, we learned about the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS. Tradition, culture, beliefs, prejudice, and fear all play a role in developing the shame associated with the virus. The result is that people don’t want to acknowledge their HIV status or disclose it to the others around them. They worry about what members in their community will say, think, or do. So does having a community hinder the resolution of this epidemic? I can’t agree. During my time walking around Kwanokuthula with Helper and Priscilla, there have been multiple occasions when people have approached us, concerned about the well-being of a neighbor or relative. One woman’s husband refused to go to the clinic to get treatment for his AIDS. He wouldn’t stop drinking and wouldn’t take his ARVs, either. She asked us to go visit him and take him by force to the clinic. We couldn’t do that, but Priscilla said that she would go later to check on him. Another woman, seeing us pass, ran out to the street to tell us to go check on “Rasta.” Rasta lived only a few houses down from her. She told us that he was HIV positive but had defaulted on his ARVs. He was very skinny and she wanted us to go right away to check on him. So we walked down the street to find Rasta, dreadlocks and all. And after talking to him for a while, Helper was able to persuade him to go to the clinic to restart his treatment.

In a true community, you’re surrounded by people who care about each other. Everyone looks out for one another. I was touched by the concern and awareness of these township residents and amazed by the power of one person speaking out. One person taking a few minutes out of his or her day to speak to a passing caregiver may have saved a life. I couldn’t help but think: in America, how often would a neighbor beg a doctor to help out the guy living down the street?

Another positive to a community is that when everyone is looking out for each other, friendships are made. And everyone is happier and healthier, at least mentally, when there are others to talk to and spend time with. Plett is a pretty small town when it comes down to it. The other day, Lauren and I went down the hill to Woolworth’s to get baking supplies for chocolate chip cookies. Upon reaching checkout, we were pleasantly surprised to find that our cashier was a woman who lives in one of our patients’ houses. We struck up a conversation and she told us about the patient’s weekend plans. It made me realize that the influence I was making in this community was real—people knew me, recognized me. I felt like I was actually helping people.

If it takes a village to raise a child, maybe it takes a community to combat AIDS.
A very big concept I’ve learned from our work is that every place has different needs. Blanket solutions to a problem are not the answer. What works in one region simply will not work in another, regardless of what statistics may predict or the UN may say. And that’s because societies all have their own people, culture, traditions, beliefs, infrastructure (or lack thereof.) Spending a good chunk of years living on tiny Orcas Island has led me to develop an appreciation for small-town life. So maybe I’m biased, but I think it’s important to never undermine the importance of a community. Each community knows where it stands; each community knows its values better than anyone else. Maybe stigmas wouldn’t even be an issue if policies were handled on this sort of smaller scale, as everyone would be in more equal understanding. I know it’s not that simple. There are myriad complications. But if nothing else, remember that the little things are often just as crucial as the larger ones.

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