Benson Obote can now smile again. Thanks to Woloko-Kwo Support Organisation, a local CBO which has supported him for over 5 years since he tasted HIV positive at Gulu Referral Hospital in Gulu district.
Benson the LCIII chairman in his sub-county was formerly married with two wives but now lives with only one. This was after testing and finding his two wives were HIV negative and one had to run back to her home. He has now settled with his youngest wife and they are living as discordant couples.
This couple is one of the 250 community mobilisers in Gulu district working under Woloko-Kwo Support Organisation.
Florence Opoka a retired nurse can see this as part of the great achievements she has had since she started the CBO in Gulu district. “I started as a counsellor in Gulu Referral Hospital, Gulu. We were offered training in counselling in Ghana in 1991.”
“As soon as I returned, I asked the hospital to give me a small room where I could practice my services. And with support of other bigger NGOs in Gulu, we were able to test and offer counselling services and that’s how the organisation started” she says.
Woloko-Kwo; an Acholi word which means “Let us change behaviour” started at the time it was needed most. In 1991, Gulu district had the leading HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in Uganda. As the group started the prevalence dropped from 11.4% to 13.4%.
The UNAIDS 2011 report titled “How to get to zero; Faster, Smarter, Better,” which has been released ahead of this year’s World Aids Day on December 1 shows that the total number of new HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa has dropped by more than 26%, down to 1.9 million [1.7 million–2.1 million] from the estimated 2.6 million [2.4 million–2.8 million] at the height of the epidemic in 1997.
In 22 sub-Saharan countries, research shows HIV incidence declined by more than 25% between 2001 and 2009.
The report attributes this decline in prevalence to the behavioral changes undertaken by the victims that saves their loved ones and the entire community.
“When we started, the message was always “stick to one woman” to help the men who were moving from one woman to another,” Florence narrates. “I started with 25 people who were counseled and trained in how to mobilize their fellow community members.”
The group has since grown from 25 to 250 community mobilisers who have formed drama groups and support one another to live healthy lives.
Concy Laker; a member of the group narrates how she was bed ridden and had no hope until the members of this group identified, counseled and referred her to TASO for HIV/AIDS testing.
“I was very sick and bed ridden. I had lost hope,” Laker says. Today she is part of the team that carries out home visits to other HIV infected patients to encourage them access counseling and testing and take their drugs.
“If the patient is very sick and can’t move, we take her with our bicycle,” showing the commitment they have exhumed in this work. These bicycles are part of the support the group has received from other bigger NGOs like World Vision International, Save the Children, UNDP and ACODE. They are sometimes facilitated with Ug. Shs. 5,000= per month to support them as they do this work. Lacer believes that even without this facilitation, she would still carry on with the work because of the far it has brought her.
Indeed Florence Opoka the founder believes they have come this far. From 25 people she had counseled, the number rose to over 1,000 people and the hospital could no longer afford provide enough space for the clients and she was requested to move out. That is how they moved to the nearby town suburb in a small office.
Monicah Adokorach a young 20 year old mother of a handsome baby is all smiles having received support to go for several antenatal checkups to protect her baby from HIV/AIDS.
Her emotional story stems from having been infected by her former boss while offering domestic support at as a maid in Kampala. On retuning back to Gulu so sickly and receiving treatment, she regained life and is now married to Ochora Andrew who is also HIV positive. They received support from the group and so far their child is “safe”.
Providing PMTC services to pregnant mothers is yet another service offered by Woloko -Kwo Support Organisation. Florence states that of the 848 pregnant mothers they have referred for HIV/AIDS testing, only two babies have been born HIV positive.
“Sometimes, when support comes in, we provide Mama Kits and mosquito nets to the pregnant mothers”
With support from the community mobilisers, she can proudly say that she has contributed to the community health care system.
Florence has been successful at this work but with several challenges.
“I was looked at as the bad one in society, one who came to show who is sick and who is not” she says. Though this attitude has changed over time but the war insurgency in Gulu has also caused other challenges. With a lot of hopelessness within the people who are trying to recover from the war, there is so much they can accept to change about their behaviour.
“When people used to live in the camps, it was worse. The men used to drink and sleep with any woman around. People were hopeless but we went there.” She narrates how they used to supply condoms to the men and somehow reduced the spread in such a fragile time.
The other challenge faced is that most health centres do not have HIV testing facilities in the community. Since their office has moved to the town suburb, they have to refer the clients counselled to other service providers to be tested. This becomes challenging as most times the distances are too long and the clients fail to go for the check up after being referred. They refer them to TASO, Gulu Youth Centre or Gulu Referral Hospital which are all found in Gulu Municipality.
“I am still negotiating with some of our donors to bring us testing kits which we can use in our nearby health centre just across. This will go a long way in helping our clients accessing the tests,” Florence laments.
Therefore in a bid to support such a great initiative she has started, she needs quite a lot of support from government in taking Voluntary Counselling and Testing (VCT) services closer to the people in the community in order to push out AIDS out of Gulu district.