Volunteering for African Impact
For years, Diane has been wanting to work at an AIDS clinic in Africa. Finally, last year she signed up to volunteer in the northeastern area of South Africa in St. Lucia. Diane’s three weeks of volunteering mostly consisted of making home visits to Zulu families. This is her account of the experience.
Although my expectation was to work in the clinic, I soon realized that the greater need was making home visits. I set out every day with Swele, my Zulu translator, visiting homebound patients. Also, I facilitated women's support groups, which I enjoyed very much. We covered topics that the women choose, such as stress, Hepatitis B and C, and getting good sleep.
I appreciated being able to see the home situations and environments to better understand the day-to-day barriers the Zulu face in obtaining health care (or water or food). I saw several patients a day, traveling to one of three villages, with very poor dirt roads, which they call “African massage”. The Zulu are so appreciative of any and all help. I visited a few families where only the "gogo" (grandma) lives with 4-9 grand- and great grandchildren. Her adult offspring and their spouses are frequently dead (most commonly from AIDS). These older women have multiple health problems and cannot travel to the clinic. With each visit, we bring a small bag of much needed, greatly appreciated food. For some, we also bring water from the government watering holes several kilometers away.
Below is a photo of 18 month-old twins. One of the boys has “floppy legs” - no lower extremity muscle tone. He does not use his legs. One twin is walking but this one (on the right) is barely crawling. The other children in the home are adorably helpful in carrying him around the yard as they play. However, we had to ask them to stop carrying him and encourage him to move his legs. The Physiotherapist has now seen him and will refer to Occupational Therapy, for more therapy, but we are seeing a little improvement already. In the photo I'm trying to get him interested in grabbing and playing with his toes. He watched his brother do it, but he is not interested - YET! By the way, the mother of these twins was HIV +. She received appropriate anti-viral medication to prevent HIV from infecting her sons. But as it happens all too often, she struggled with side effects, stopped the drugs and died just the week before I came. The boys will join his cousins living with Gogo.
The photo below is of a “gogo”. She lives with her daughter and this boy, who is her grandson. We were visiting the daughter who is in her 30's. She has HIV and tuberculosis. The tuberculosis (TB) she has traveled from her lungs into to her spine, crippling her. We were checking on her medication supply for the TB.
The three of them live in a home the size of your bedroom. The kitchen is an outdoor fire pit and the toilet is an outhouse. This gogo makes beaded jewelry to sell at the market for a little extra money. I bought bracelets from her for my nieces. Their clothes are mostly donated from the previous volunteers. I left many of my clothes behind as well.
After Zulu children finish high school, their only option is to get a job, if they are lucky. The university is far away and only the very, very brightest students get a scholarship to pay for tuition. But since they cannot afford the living expenses, they often still cannot attend. Educational and economic apartheid survives.
I visited a grandma who cares for these grandchildren (below). This grandma has metastatic cervical cancer that has spread to the intestines. Unfortunately, she too has HIV. She will not survive. But fortunately these children have at least one living parent. (Yes, that is her home in the background.)
It was wonderful to put my previous (rusty) home health care experience back to work.
My experience in St Lucia definitely was memorable. It supported everything I have read all these years about the HIV epidemic in Sub-Saharan Africa (the good and sad). Although I fulfilled a life time dream, I am unconvinced I can check it off the list. I may need to go back. I’ll keep you posted.