Work being done to tackle HIV in Malawi is making changes, says campaigner Annie Lennox
Feb 17 2011 John Dingwall

FRAIL grandmother Elenita Samatoni is a symbol of the way in which AIDS has laid waste to Malawi.

In her 60s or 50s, Elenita is one of a legion of Malawian grannies who have been left to bring up their grandchildren after their children were killed by the disease.

An emotional Annie Lennox, in Malawi to investigate the work being done to help those affected both directly and indirectly by AIDS, listens intently.

Elenita’s face is scored with deep wrinkles, her eyes pale and watery from cataracts and her voice almost a whisper as she tells her story through an interpreter – the local Red Cross representative.

There’s no benefits system here so how is she, an old and frail woman, going to feed five small kids, let alone raise them to be educated and self-sufficient?

She says that occasional support from the Red Cross has helped but is not enough for her to support the children from day to day.

Almost an entire generation of parents has been wiped out and half of Malawi’s the population are children.

Elenita and other grannies in her community come together to farm and pool the milk from the goats donated to them by the charity.

But their life is still a daily struggle. Annie, 56, comes away from her meeting with Elenita, her voice cracking with emotion.

She says: “She is probably in her sixties. It is tough. It is wrong that she should be in this position.

“The kids are completely depending on her and she has so little, herself, to offer.”

In a village shed, the superstar singer, who is the Scottish parliament’s special envoy to Malawi, meets other women struggling to survive.

These women, infected with HIV, gather to share their experiences with each other.

Annie and Alex Fergusson, the presiding officer of the Scottish parliament, were welcomed to the village by the young chief.

He is something of a hero in the fight to help people with AIDS/HIV in Malawi – simply because he has accepted the women infected with the disease in his community.

They are able to talk freely about their disease without the stigma which would have been there just a few years ago.

Annie says: “This village has the kind of poverty levels that you see. Children in rags and bare feet in hovels and with very little.

“But here, from what I have seen so far, I feel things are changing. The work being done by various institutions like Oxfam and the Red Cross are making a difference.

“It is happening slowly, but there are changes happening.

“People here couldn’t talk about HIV before.

“The stigma was so high you had to remain silent.

“The fact that the chief of the village has accepted these women is a major step forward.”

Not so long ago, the women at the village meeting would have faced being cast out and shunned.

Instead, with the help of the Red Cross, they get medication and treatment they need to survive.

And they are able to meet to give each other the support they need.

They meet in a shed, sitting at school desks, sheltered from the sun by a corrugated iron roof, the walls decorated with educational drawings of the female organs.

One by one, the women stand up to give their account.

“Sometimes I forget to take my medication,” says one. “Maybe when I have been with friends and I have had too much to drink, or because I have been drinking I think I don’t need this stupid medicine.”

Just being able to acknowledge and discuss the reasons why she is skipping the drugs may help to keep this woman alive.

Annie’s visit ends on a lighter note. As is so often the case wherever we go in Malawi, the atmosphere lifts as the women break into song.

As good as any choir, their delicate voices are punctuated with handclaps and broad smiles.

Annie is also smiling – but keen to stress the serious point of the meeting.

She explains: “What these women are learning today is that you have to stick to HIV treatment.

“A few years ago, it would have been very hard for anybody who is HIV positive to reveal their status.

“So the fact that, within this little rural community, you have a small group of people who are HIV positive openly coming together to have a support group is really positive and a step in the right direction.”

Later, at the Theatre For Change, Annie meets women who are on the front line of Malawi’s battle with AIDS.

Guided by programme manager Ethel Chavula, former sex workers take to the stage.

They are role-playing, acting out their experiences of selling their bodies and the attitudes of the men they encountered in the bars and hotels of Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi.

This is a society where women are a long way off from enjoying equality and the job of a prostitute is even more dangerous than in most other countries.

These women sold mostly unprotected sex to feed their families and the cost to them is likely to be high, since more than one million of the 15million people in Malawi are infected with HIV.

But Annie, watching their role-playing alongside an audience of men, is hopeful that attitudes can change.

She says: “That is innovative, effective and makes sense because it is about behaviour and tranforming people’s views through theatre performance.

“The men they are playing to have sometimes got to come in and take a part of a character in the story. It is a head flip that lets them see the different perspective. It is really transformative.

“These women’s sex work is to provide food on the table for their kids. It’s survival.

“They didn’t gravitate towards it because they could earn lucrative sums. They don’t.

“It’s subsistence and that’s all it is. They get into it because they have nowhere to turn.

“They would rather sell homebaked bread in the street than be abused by men but they are desperate.”