Lobatse, Botswana — The swish of grass slashers, the scrape of shovels, the beeping and droning of tractors, the clanking of large tent poles — a flurry of people working to prepare for a big community event. Why all the fuss?
Over the next three years American pharmaceutical Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) has committed $154 million Canadian to combat HIV/AIDS in southern Africa.
The celebration January 27 marked the beginning of BMS partnerships with two Botswana non-government organizations: Botswana Christian AIDS Intervention Program (BOCAIP) and Reetsenang, a drama group, the first beneficiaries of BMS funds.
Tsholofelo (meaning ‘hope’) Counselling Centre in Lobatse, southern Botswana, will also receive money. My husband Art and I are coordinators of this centre. We both also work part time as administrators with the national BOCAIP office in Gaborone, the capital.
Crowds gathered for this landmark event. Some 500 people joined local dignitaries, two ministers of government and leaders of the organizations receiving funds. TV cameras recorded the speeches, dancers and choirs. Laughter accompanied the drama by Reetsanang. The cheques were handed over with great cheers.
But those were not the day’s most important events. Grace, one of our Tsholofelo clients, was asked if she would consent to being interviewed by a TV crew. This was a daunting request, as only a handful of people in Botswana have publically revealed that they are HIV positive. At first Grace was reluctant, but when she consented she said she was now free to do this openly, not hidden from the camera. With her counselor, Ben Kulube, Grace was interviewed for the South African Broadcasting Company, her adorable four year old daughter at her side.
One of our biggest tasks now is to support Grace, to give her the strength to withstand the alienation and adversity that may result because of her disclosure. Hopefully her courage will complement the Bristol-Myers Squibb fund, and benefit many in Botswana who, like Grace, have HIV/AIDS.
H. Ruth Thiessen is a member of Bakerview Mennonite Brethren Church in Abbotsford. She works in Botswana with MCC.