It takes a village
By ANDREA FURLONG
|Williamsburg native Jillian Van Zee, back row, center, stands with dozens of HIV positive individuals and families affected by HIV in a Malawian village of 2,000 people. Van Zee received thousands of dollars from Williamsburg this fall toward the construction of an AIDS educational center in the village.|
Over 8,000 miles from Williamsburg, in one of the world’s 20 poorest countries, sits a nearly completed African AIDS educational center that might not be there if it weren’t for the efforts of the Williamsburg community and a young woman.
Two years after graduating from Rhodes College, Memphis, Tenn., with a bachelor’s in neuroscience, Williamsburg native Jillian Van Zee, 25, joined the Peace Corps. While studying abroad in college, Van Zee had volunteered at a government hospital. Upon seeing South Africans’ challenges with public health, she had made it her goal to return to the region and help to improve the public health system.
The Peace Corps placed Van Zee in Malawi, a country that struggles desperately against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), as well as malaria and malnutrition. Together, these three health conditions are responsible for the short average lifespan of a Malawian, which is 37 years, according to USAID, an independent federal government organization that promotes foreign policy and foreign assistance.
An estimated 14 million people live in Malawi. Two years ago, 11.9 percent of Malawians age 15 and older had HIV or AIDS and over half a million children were orphaned due to AIDS, according to AVERT, an international AIDS charity.
Upon arriving in Malawi one year and a half ago, Van Zee was designated as a community HIV/AIDS coordinator in Mwansambo, a Malawian village of about 2,000 people. Through volunteering at a local health center, Van Zee became familiar with the common health challenges facing Malawians: AIDS, malaria, cholera, dystentary and infant mortality. Yet, despite the poor health facing many, Van Zee was charmed by the happiness exuding from Malawians.
“The villagers possess a certain happiness that I truly admire. They take life for what it is, appreciate everything they have and spend each day living in the moment. In the time I have spent here, I don’t think I have heard a single Malawian complain about the life they were given. I surely hope it rubs off on me,” she wrote in a letter she sent home.
In early 2009, Van Zee was already helping the people of Mwansambo through volunteering at the hospital, as a teacher of life skills for 15-19 year-olds and as a friend and educator to orphans and HIV positive Malawians. She saw up close and personal how HIV threatened the family structure of Malawians.
“Families tend to be very large here and when one of the parents dies (whether from HIV or not), it puts a severe amount of pressure on the remaining parent to provide for the family. If it is the husband that passes away and the wife is left with many children, their source of income is usually cut off. HIV/AIDS can also cause a lot of tensions between family members when someone is found to be HIV+. (That person) tends to have a hard time working to make money or even working in the fields to grow food for the family,” she said.
She saw how HIV affected children.
“When one or both parents die because of AIDS, the child is orphaned and vulnerable. When a child becomes orphaned, it is very difficult for that child to find someone to help pay their school fees and thus they generally stop attending school,” she said.
And Van Zee saw how peoples’ perceptions of HIV affected the quality of life of HIV positive Malawians.
“We battle a huge amount of stigma and discrimination in Mwansambo. People afflicted with HIV/AIDS are discriminated against in a variety of ways. They are left out of government fertilizer subsidy programs, are treated poorly in the community, their goods are less likely to be bought at the local market and generally suffer from the idea that they are going to transmit the disease to another by simply shaking hands with a fellow villager. Children who are affected by HIV are teased in school. When a member of the family is found to be HIV positive, they can be abondoned by their families,” she said.
Van Zee’s days were busy, but she felt she could do more for these people who were so loving. She wanted something that would have a positive long-term impact on improving the peoples’ health, even after her Peace Corps term ended and sent her back to the U.S. in July 2010. That’s when she stumbled upon the Mwansambo AIDS Support Organization (MWAS0). The local organization was made up of HIV positive, as well as HIV negative individuals, who wanted to increase the standard of living for those with HIV and AIDS. She had found local people who better understood the wide range effects of stigma against HIV and wanted to decrease the spread of the disease and family abandonment it caused, “increase the education about HIV/AIDS, help dispel some of the myths and encourage the villagers to have a more compassionate outlook on HIV/AIDS.”
After meeting with MWASO, Van Zee agreed to help the organization accomplish its dream of building a community AIDS support center for the people of Mwansambo. The center would provide weekly support group meetings for villagers with HIV and AIDS, information on HIV medicines, support for family, educational and awareness training on HIV.
Knowing how poor the people of Mwansambo were (many families live on $1 per day), Van Zee reached out to her hometown of 4,000 people, and asked if they might consider donating any amount toward a $13,000 AIDS educational center in a village half their size. She sent a two-and-a-half page e-mail home, which her family copied and distributed throughout town, detailing her life in the country, the wonderful people of Mwansambo and her strong desire to help them. Van Zee even admitted in the letter that she felt self-conscious about asking for money.
“I know that times are hard in America and I feel a little uncomfortable ‘begging’ for money. So, if you are not interested, please do not feel obligated to donate to this project. I decided on this funding option due to the amount of people who wanted to help me out in some way or another. It is hard to find a non-governmental organization or charitable organization that is willing to donate ($13,000) to see this project to fruition. I thought it would be an incredible thing to give those at home the opportunity to really make a difference in a Malawian life,” she wrote.
UPDATED November 25, 2009 12:27 PM