Red Cross projects in the Cape get royal approval

Published: 4 May 2004 0:00 CET

Estelle Neethling, South African Red Cross

It is not every day that a princess comes into the homes of the people living with HIV/AIDS in Cape Town’s sprawling Khayelitsha township. But last week, Princess Astrid of Belgium visited a number of South African Red Cross (SARCS) projects in the desperately poor township.

The princess, President of the Belgian Red Cross and a frequent goodwill ambassador for the International Federation, has long taken an interest in the issue of public health in Africa and especially HIV/AIDS, and her presence in South Africa gave her the opportunity to see at first hand some of the projects being implemented to address the impact of the pandemic.

The first was a support group of the Red Cross community home-based care project. Having been welcomed by the soulful singing of the Red Cross choir, the princess listened to the moving testimony of 36-year-old Bulelwa Mabe, who described how she first found out her baby was HIV-positive and only later learnt that she was also carrying the virus.

“The Red Cross support group helped me to believe in myself again,” Mabe declared. Princess Astrid said it was important that the stigma surrounding the virus should be countered. “We should come up front with issues concerning the virus, in order to combat the feelings of rejection sufferers inevitably face,” she said.

The Princess was then introduced to the Memory Box project, where clients in the home-based care programme record their thoughts and feelings in a special memory book, gathering cherished items to leave behind for their loved ones, serving as a reminder of their lives when they are no longer there.

She was also informed of their income-generation project, which gives the support group members not only some income, but also helps boost their self-confidence.

“It helps me to feel useful, especially when I see other people wearing beadwork I have made with my own faltering hands,” Nosia Zamxaka said. “In the beginning, before I received the anti-retroviral treatment, I had difficulty in putting the cotton through the needle.”

Having thanked the speakers for their “open and clear testimony”, the princess attended a joint community event of Medicins sans Frontières (MSF) and the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) to celebrate 1,000 patients being treated with antiretroviral therapy (ART).

The last part of the day’s proceedings arrived when Princess Astrid and the president of the SARCS, Mandisa Kalako-Williams, were taken into the homes of two patients in an advanced stage of AIDS, but who are nevertheless benefiting from ART, as well as the kindness and help from the Red Cross caregivers, who visit them every day to give bed baths and sometimes food parcels.

The mere fact of the Princess Astrid’s visit, coupled with her kind words of encouragement, was profoundly meaningful to these women. She referred to them as heroes and wished them well in their fight against “this terrible disease”.

Kalako-Williams paid tribute to the Belgian Government for its assistance to the South Africa Red Cross. The Belgian Embassy in South Africa has since 2002 supported a home-based care programme for people living with HIV/AIDS in Mokopane, Limpopo province, and have been funding a unique capacity building project in Gauteng where the Red Cross will train and support some 40 community-based organizations in carrying out home based care programmes - making it possible to reach out to some 800 clients.

“This assistance has helped us in Gauteng Province to capacitate faith-based and community-based organisations involved in HIV and AIDS. We thank all the people of Belgium on behalf of the beneficiaries,” Kalako-Williams said.

As she bade farewell, the Princess, who had represented her country at South Africa President’s Thabo Mbeki’s inauguration two days before, again expressed her feelings of hope with regard to a “constructive fight” against HIV/Aids.

“If everyone does part of the business we can be certain to make advances,” was the Belgian Minister of Development cooperation, Marc Verwilghen’s, message to the national society.

Kalako-Williams’s comment at the end of the day’s proceedings left one much to contemplate: “We as South Africans should make it our business to know what is happening in the homes of those living next door, for instance do they have enough to eat? To know how things are with our fellow human beings is the springboard for humanitarian action.”