Hill of hope

2010-05-21 00:00

“BEFORE Woza Moya started, people were dying of Aids but we didn’t know it was Aids,” says Jane Ngethembi Nxasane. “We thought people were bewitched by something. At the beginning it was difficult for us to accept HIV, but now it is accepted.”

Nxasane is a founder member of Woza Moya, a nongovernmental organisation (NGO) that provides care and support for people infected and affected by HIV/Aids in the Ofafa Valley, about 15 kilometres from Ixopo. The Woza Moya Community Centre where Nxasane works is situated just below the crest of a ridge and provides a spectacular view of the valley which is home to about 23 000 people, spread among 10 communities, each with an induna who in turn owes allegiance to inkosi Thokozile Ndlovu.

Woza Moya recently celebrated its 10th year of working with the people of Ofafa, to whom it offers a variety of services, including home-based care, orphan intervention, food security and paralegal services.

“Woza” means come and “moya” means wind, air, breath or spirit. “Christians would say Holy Spirit,” says Woza Moya’s director Sue Hedden. “I love the way it means wind and spirit at the same time.”

The seed of Woza Moya can be found in Hedden’s fluency in Zulu — “I used to teach Zulu at a high school.” Back in the nineties when Hedden was running the kitchen at the nearby Buddhist Retreat Centre (BRC), her facility with the language saw staff members going to speak to her about their problems. “I ended up in a mediator role.”

Hedden discovered that learning English was a priority among the staff so she set up a course, the content of which involved telling life stories. “The stories that emerged were just shocking,” says Hedden.

“We ‘Buddhists’ up on the hill were oblivious to what was going on around us. People were dying like flies as a result of HIV/Aids. But there was no information or knowledge about the disease.”

The most recent statistics for the area, from 2003, indicate that the Ofafa community has been seriously affected by the Aids pandemic. In that year, 47% of the pregnant women tested at the antenatal clinic were HIV-positive. Of the general patients referred for voluntary counselling and testing in a five-month period in the same year, 78% tested positive.

Made aware of this tragedy playing out on her doorstep, Hedden consulted Kittisaro and Thanissara Weinberg, who were semi-resident teachers at the BRC who now run Dharmagiri, a Buddhist hermitage near Underberg — “they took it up immediately” — and all three approached Louis van Loon, founder of the BRC, and his wife, Chrisi, who helps run the centre, for their blessing in setting up an HIV/Aids initiative.

Hedden also sought advice from an old school friend, Debbie Mathew, executive director of the Aids Foundation of South Africa (Afsa), who had grown up on a farm in the area.

“She laid out clear procedures for us to follow,” says Hedden. “Her advice was that whatever we did, it must not be top-down. We had to hear from the community, to let them identify their needs and then discover how best to respond.”

Mathew also put Hedden in touch with the Siyaphila support group in Pietermaritzburg, which is a group of Zulu-speaking people living with Aids, where she met Jabu Molefe. She and Molefe first met informally with members of the Ofafa community and then a day-long meeting was held in a church hall.

“It was a hectic day,” Hedden recalls. “There was shouting, people said Jabu was lying. How could she be so plump if she was HIV-positive? People were angry, there was a lot of animosity.”

But as the issues were talked through, consensus was reached and 15 volunteers were chosen to take the project forward. “Two of those volunteers, Jane Ngethembi Nxasane and Benedicta Memela, came up to me afterwards and said ‘we are with you’. They are now our two project managers.”

Meanwhile, the Weinbergs set about raising funds and contacted friends at the San Francisco Insight Centre (SFI) who subsequently financed Woza Moya’s first year of operation which was run from an office at the BRC. In 2005, thanks again to funding from SFI, Woza Moya moved to its own home on tribal land next to the village of Chibini at the head of the Ofafa Valley.

Ten years on, Woza Moya now has 48 staff. “They are not all full-time,” says Hedden. “Many are part-time and some are volunteers. It’s grown to be a huge operation.” It’s also one that has worked, attracting national and international attention in the process. If there is a secret to Woza Moya’s success it is the combination of a practical, hands-on approach that avoids prescriptive solutions, and a more elusive personal touch. “We have found that the big campaigns with banners and handing out condoms are not effective,” says Hedden. “It’s the much more subtle things, the one-to-one interactions within a caring and confidential environment.”

Woza Moya now fields 28 community care workers who are supervised by home-based care co-ordinator Nxasane. The care workers make home visits, educate people about HIV/Aids, encourage them to go for testing and provide support where necessary.

“They work in the community where they live and they tend to work with the families who are the poorest,” she says. “At the beginning it was not easy for the community to accept us. But that has changed and now, if people have got a problem, they come to us.”

Nxasane’s colleague and fellow manager Memela is Woza Moya’s food security co-ordinator. “We identify the most vulnerable families and assess to see if they would benefit from a food garden. They are then given training by the Department of Agriculture and when they are ready to plant we give them seedlings. We encourage sick people to eat a range of vegetables — cabbages, spinach, carrots and butternuts. In the past, people used to plant only mealies, madumbis and beans. Now most have their own gardens and grow their own vegetables,” says Memela.

They can also sell surplus vegetables. “We encourage them to do that so they can generate some income as well as improve their nutrition.”

A new development is the setting up of a demonstration permaculture garden at the centre, done in partnership with the Durban Botanical Garden. Another recent project is a play school for children aged three to five, which was set up by Linda Stone and Helen Hancock, local women trained in early childhood development. They have passed on their knowledge to Bancamisile Shabalala, Tholakele Ngubane and Fikisile Zuma, who will eventually run the facility.

One of Woza Moya’s most successful projects has been the school support programme (see box), which ensures children of school-going age have uniforms. “Children without uniforms are stigmatised and stay at home,” says Thembi Mweli, Woza Moya’s orphan and vulnerable children co-ordinator.

“Through the school support programme we buy everything for the child. Now there are no children staying at home because they don’t have uniforms.”

The community care workers working with Mweli identify children who need such schooling support as well as those who are at risk, neglected or are being abused sexually or physically. “The care workers report to me and then we assess the needs of the child and proceed from there.”

Mweli also supervises support groups for gogos —  grandmothers heading households. “They are able to talk about their challenges. Sometimes it’s very sad. But they tell me that the talking helps. They don’t have that pain sitting in their hearts.”

But as successful as Woza Moya has been, the need is still greater, says Nxasane. “Twenty-eight community care workers are not enough. If we had more funds we could train more.”

Currently, Woza Moya’s main funding comes from Afsa, Oxfam Australia, Hospice Palliative Care and, until recently, the Department of Social Development. But in a time of global recession, funding has become a major headache. “That’s what wakes me up at three in the morning,” says Hedden.

Recently, four of Woza Moya’s main funding sources suddenly dried up at the same time.

“The South Africa Development Fund in Boston in the United States closed down after 25 years of operation due to the recession,” says Hedden. “They had been a regular donor of ours.”

The recession also saw All Together Now International unable to provide any financial support, while the SFI moved its funding focus to another Buddhist HIV/Aids initiative. Another blow was the failure on the part of the Social Development Department to pay the annual grant of R150 000. “We’ve had no formal reply, response, or explanation from anyone,” says Hedden.

This funding shortfall means Woza Moya can no longer run its food parcel programme. “Last year, we had to cut food parcels in half. This year, with no social welfare grant, we have had to cut them completely. There are now child-headed households in the valley that are starving. And we’ve had to pull back on other programmes as funds are so tight.”

“It is such an irony,” says Hedden. “We are held up as a model, Oxfam comes here to learn from us and we are celebrating 10 years of success, yet here we are going through a funding crisis.”

• Check the website: www.wozamoya.org.sa

WITH R1 000 a year, Woza Moya can purchase a school uniform for one child, including shoes, socks, underwear, tie, shirt and trousers or skirt, and cover some of the operational costs involved in running this programme.

The school sponsorship programme only accepts primary school children up to Grade 6.

There are seven primary schools in the Ofafa Valley and each one has a different school uniform.

If you would like to find out more, contact Woza Moya’s special projects volunteer, Ian Chambler, via e-mail at ichambler@intekom.co.za (please put School Sponsorship Programme in the subject box).

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