In Caprivi, Red Cross care extends across the borders

Published: 2 April 2003 0:00 CET

Solveig Olafsdottir in Katima

It was an historic day for the Botswana, Namibia and Zambia Red Cross Societies when 43 new home-based care facilitators graduated after a two-week training course, ready to take on their new duties in providing care in their communities across the borders along the Caprivi Strip.

It also manifested the commitment of Southern Africa Red Cross Societies to strengthen their cooperation. Although they have a long experience in providing home-based care in the region, the Caprivi project is the first time that three national societies have devised a joint programme to fight a common foe.

The new graduates have a grave assignment: to join forces in the fight against HIV/AIDS across the borders. The need is evident. The HIV/AIDS prevalence rate among adults ranges from 30 per cent in the Sesheke district of Zambia and 43 per cent in Caprivi in Namibia, up to nearly 50 per cent in Chobe district on the Botswana side of the border.

The border posts between the three countries are constantly busy, a steady stream of people going back and forth. This constant movement of the population, the Red Cross believes, calls for a common approach in fighting HIV/AIDS. It is a concern shared by the local authorities across the Caprivi Strip.

“We are all the same family. There is a lot of interaction and intermarriage in this region,” said Bernard Sibalatani, the Regional Governor of Caprivi in Namibia, in his address to the new home-based care facilitators.

“It is very important to know the situation on the ground in all the three countries. All your training was done here in Katima, but it is essential that you continue to share your information with your colleagues across the borders,” he told the newly trained facilitators.

The governor was touching upon a crucial element of this new approach launched by the Botswana, Namibia and Zambia Red Cross Societies. By training the facilitators from the three countries together and thus forging a team spirit among the participants, the Red Cross can ensure a common approach in the fight against HIV/AIDS, even if the situation varies from country to country. It will also secure constant consultation and flow of information among home-based care facilitators throughout the Caprivi Strip.

The situation is most serious in Chobe, in Botswana, where HIV/AIDS prevalence is far above the national average - almost 50 per cent compared to 39 per cent nationwide. The health authorities in Chobe have seen some positive indications that new HIV cases have fallen in the past year, a tribute to an effective government campaign against the pandemic.

Information material and posters keep the population well informed, and the government plans to provide all those living with HIV/AIDS with anti-retroviral drugs. A New Start Voluntary Counselling and Testing Centre (VCT) was opened in Kasane, the district’s urban centre, last year, and has also made people much more aware of the problem, as they get tested for HIV and receive counselling at the same time.

The opening of a home-based care programme in Chobe is a milestone for the Botswana Red Cross. Not only will it provide a necessary service to a community heavily affected by the pandemic, but it is also the first project of this kind the Society has undertaken in the country.

“The effect of the HIV/AIDS pandemic has caused a great strain on Botswana’s modern health system. The Red Cross home-based care programme will help to alleviate that strain by providing care for those affected within their own homes,” said George Tlhalerwa, Vice President of the Botswana Red Cross Society, at the graduation ceremony.

“We are proud of the 13 care facilitators from our National Society who have undergone the training with the other participants, and are now equipped with skills to take care of the most vulnerable in their communities,” he added.

The Caprivi region is also one of the hardest hit parts of Namibia, with 43 per cent HIV/AIDS prevalence, compared to 22.5 per cent nationwide, according to Dr Chirwa, the Chief Medical Officer of the Ngweze State hospital in the town of Katima.

“We appreciate the work the Red Cross is entering into here, and we hope it will also help our medical staff, who are close to burn-out because of the heavy workload due to the HIV/AIDS pandemic,” Dr Chirwa said, as he addressed the graduates. “The Red Cross is working within the communities, together with the traditional leaders and the population, which is bound to make their vocation sustainable.”

Sesheke district in Zambia, just across the Zambezi River from Katima, seems to be less affected by the pandemic, as the estimated HIV/AIDS prevalence rate stands at some 30 per cent. The reality on the ground is probably somewhat different - there are no testing facilities at the district’s three hospitals, nor is there any surveillance of lactating mothers as there is in other parts of the country.

It is also evident that the effect of HIV/AIDS is increasingly being felt in Sesheke, and that the movement of people across the borders with the neighbouring countries, where prevalence is higher, is of great concern.

“The Zambian Red Cross has successfully established home-based care programmes in three districts in the country,” said Charles Mushitu, the Acting Secretary General of the Zambian Red Cross. “We are convinced that this project will be no less successful, and will help mitigate the effect of HIV/AIDS in the three border towns and the region as a whole.”

The 43 new home-based care facilitators, trained by the International Federation’s Regional Delegation HIV/AIDS team, face a huge task as they return to their respective homes. With support from the regional HIV/AIDS programme and their national Red Cross societies, they now have to put into practice what they have learned for the past two weeks in Katima. They are pioneers in their own communities, chosen by the Red Cross to provide care for those living with HIV/AIDS, to fight the stigma attached to the disease and to help curb the spread of AIDS through dissemination and prevention messages. But they are not alone.

Nicolette Bessinger, the Head of Programmes at the Namibia Red Cross, the host national society, reminded the graduates that they cannot act alone, that they have to make the most of this historic moment of solidarity between the three national societies that are now joining force in the fight against AIDS.

“I also urge you to join hands with all our other partners working in HIV/AIDS activities - governments, local authorities, hospitals, clinics and non-governmental organizations. We cannot fight this disease in isolation,” Bessinger said.

One of the greatest strengths of the cross-border project is indeed the reassurance that the new graduates will not work alone - that they will work as a team across the borders, providing each other with necessary support.

“It has long been our dream to start an HIV/AIDS programme here in Caprivi. Now we are finally here in the region, and not only launching a project with the Namibian Red Cross, but also Zambia and Botswana Red Cross Societies. That is a great accomplishment,” said Bongai Mundeta, the Regional Delegation’s HIV/AIDS Coordinator.

“Now, I just hope that the next time we meet, the two other countries sharing borders with Caprivi - Angola and Zimbabwe - will be here with us to further strengthen our cooperation in the region.”

Now the new Red Cross volunteers go back to their communities equipped with their basic home-based care kit, enthusiasm and their slogan: “Where we can’t cure, we can care.”

Related links:

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