Helping each other to help others

2007-12-20 00:00

WHILE Ntombi Mkhize went about making tea and cleaning the offices at Project Accept, she kept a keen eye on what was happening around her. She dared to imagine herself as a member of one of the multi-skilled voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) teams that set out every day with a caravan to encourage people in the area to test for HIV/Aids.

Mkhize applied for formal leave from her cleaning job and used the time to put herself through a LifeLine course, hoping to make herself eligible for consideration next time a counselling vacancy arose at the project. It paid off.

This month, Mkhize started her new job as a VCT counsellor at Project Accept, the large-scale HIV/Aids prevention trial run by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) from premises in rural Vulindlela. Now in its fourth year, the research project has tested close to 3 000 people in just over 12 months.

In her new position, Mkhize joins a 50-strong team of young people whose collective ability to meet HIV testing and counselling targets in an area marked by fierce stigma around the disease has recently drawn the attention of the HSRC in the form of the Ubuntu Award.

One of six national awards presented to staff for the first time this year, the Ubuntu Award recognises “outstanding team work and collegiality”. It also recognises the role of leadership in “building team spirit and morale”.

Project director Heidi van Rooyen says that an emphasis on human development — precisely that which made it possible for Mkhize to make such radical progress in her own career — is one of the cornerstones of the project’s success.

“To deliver good science, you need great people,” she says. “Our policy is to promote from within and grow the talent and resources at our disposal.” Of the project’s four current field supervisors, three started off as entry level counsellors, facilitators and outreach workers.

For team leader Thokozani Sithole, a recognition of “the personal” in the workplace has positive spin-offs for everyone. “We have a professional goal, but in the end we don’t forget about the person. So, in return, we go the extra mile if we need to.”

Van Rooyen says that one of the benefits of setting up a new project from scratch — as was the case with Project Accept — is being able to create something new and different. One of her first moves was to broaden the leadership base. “I was keen to create a consultative and participatory environment, with an emphasis on developing people and creating space and opportunities for everyone to be heard. I did a lot of research on modern organisational development principles and management. I was adamant about the need for coaches and mentors; after all, no one is born knowing how to manage people.”

For Van Rooyen, the award acknowledges some of the risks that were taken in placing a creative and unconventional emphasis on what are traditionally viewed as “soft skills” — team-building, motivational and inspirational management tools and coaching and mentoring. “There often isn’t funding available for these,” she says.

But the fruits of investing in people are now starting to show: “A strong and stable team of young black research managers is emerging,” says Van Rooyen. “In a situation where qualified black staff are frequently tempted by better offers and longer contracts, this is a big achievement.”

Van Rooyen says they’ve been successful in extending contract periods for staff in order to encourage individual commitment and the stability of the team.

But it’s not all work and no play at Project Accept. Given the nature of the work, which is conducted at the coalface of human emotions in communities ravaged by HIV/Aids, unemployment and poverty, some form of structured “time out” is essential.

Van Rooyen says at least one day a month, and sometimes more, is dedicated to an “alternative experience”, which allows for learning and reflection, supervision and support and debriefing and de-stressing.

“We share experiences and learn from each other”, is how team co-ordinator Thulani Ngubane puts it.

Socialising as a group is also a regular feature of the working calendar. “We love to eat and to dance as a team. If we can combine these two things then that’s great.” In the process of social interaction, relationships are forged and spaces for communication created.

“These may seem like silly things to do and I constantly imagine people at the cutting edge of research in urban centres such as Pretoria or Cape Town dismissing these activities as the stuff of rural backwaters. But at its core, it’s about honouring people,” says Van Rooyen.

Van Rooyen has also used fun as a useful learning tool.

“In a complicated behavioural trial such as ours, there are several standard operating procedures and protocols that have to be learnt by staff. We’ve tried to make that process fun by organising internal quizzes with prizes and having the ‘intervention police’ drop in for a ‘show and tell’ session to test the staff’s adherence to requirements around documentation, processes and systems.”

Setting incentives for the meeting of testing targets has also been effective and the team has exceeded targets in the last four months. “It’s also helped to build ownership of the project and its goals and has deepened the sense of our responsibility to test, educate and support,” says Van Rooyen.

What is Project Accept?

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