“I know that I am the walking dead” said Brenda as she explained her background to Moses, a Dignity Impact Team member. Brenda is HIV positive. In Namibia, as in many other African countries, there is a large stigma for sufferers of HIV and Aids. People believe that you are a person of loose morality or that you are dangerous. In reality, many of those who suffer are simply unlucky or not educated to know about how the virus spreads. Sadly, exclusion from the church and the community stigma led her to lead a more solitary life than she would have liked.In early 2017, Brenda started attending a Life Group in an area called Cowboy near Katima Mulilo, Northern Namibia. The Life Group chose to welcome her in by doing so they stood against the norm of their society. Through the teaching and community of the group Brenda grew both as a Christian and as a person. “I used to think that if I’m HIV positive, that I couldn’t be a child of God”.As the group made her welcome, Brenda felt safe to open up about her battle with HIV. She talked about her testimony and how her taking antiretrovirals (ARVs) had made her feel significantly better. However, it wasn’t just her body that was feeling better, her soul was alive! She said, “I feel joy in me that I didn’t have before”. Brenda has grown in her relationship with Jesus throughout 2017 and she is full of thanks to God for what he has done in her life.
But Brenda’s story doesn’t end there. She could see the suffering of others in her community also battling HIV and Aids. Due to her open-ness about her own status, many other people who are HIV positive joined the Life Group. They felt they could be open and accepted within the group because Brenda was like them and would understand them. They learned to live together and to learn about Jesus together.“This group brings the Word of God close to the people. They can relate to God,” Brenda explains. Many of those sufferers have also come to Jesus and opened up about the challenge of difficult living with HIV and Aids. The group is a place in the community where they can be open, where they can be free.
Being the difference
One of Dignity’s main elements of training is to introduce the idea of community responsibility. We believe it’s the Christian and right thing to do. Together, the Life Group in Cowboy introduced a scheme that has become popularly called “The Servants”. They bring advocacy, relationship and practical help to fellow sufferers. Whether it is some encouragement or practical help, members of “The Servants” are well known in the Cowboy community.This has grown in recent months to include a credit union scheme which they learned how to operate from one of Dignity’s Impact Team members, Moses.Every week, each member brings $10 Namibian Dollars (£0.55/$.74) and contributes this to ‘The Servants’ fund. Some of this amount goes into an emergency fund which they use to help people who are in dire need. This has been used to pay for transport for very ill sufferers to get to a clinic in town or to help people with the cost of medicine. Members can also loan money to enable them to pay for larger farming expenses or longer journeys. Each contribution gives a member a point, with more points they can loan more. It’s a revolutionary idea in communities where ‘loan sharking’ is rife and often interest rates are 50-100% monthly.Moses, the local coordinator states, “Without a Life Group this thing could never have happened. This is really God’s plan for his people. Many charities and NGO’s run projects for people, but this goes deeper. People’s behaviour and understanding changes and this results in love within the community. Now, people are looking at the bible for themselves, interacting with each other and they see the love of God in the storm of HIV. They understand they are children of God, not cursed! This gives people joy and they want to help others.”
Despite everything fantastic that has happened and continues to do so the Life Group still faces some challenges. A stigma remains for those who are HIV positive, even from within the group itself. There are members who have suggested that the group becomes two, one for those who are HIV positive and one for those who are not. For now, they are holding it together, but sometimes relationships become strained.What has happened represents a small but significant step for the community but there is still a lot of work to do.The aim of Dignity has always been to release the God given potential of villagers to know Jesus and to do the work of God in their communities. We do this through Life Groups that are small community groups learning about God and learning about our responsibility for one another, taking action upon it. Brenda and the Life Group in Cowboy is a fantastic example of how Life Groups enable people to know Jesus and also bring love to their community. Please pray for them as they work out how to live life differently to those around them.