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17/10/2006

The campaigners’ association

In each and every DREAM centre, medical and paramedical personnel are flanked by local men and women who have decided to commit themselves to working for patients who come to our centres. They decided to do so when their own lives were remarkably transformed after they came in contact with our services.
There are relatively large groups of such people and they constitute an indispensable resource for the success of the programme. Most, but not all, of them are sick. They are our “campaigners”.
 
 
Their experience was born from the reality that, throughout these years, DREAM has offered a novel type of approach to the problem posed by the spread of the AIDS epidemic in Africa.
There was the intent to consider not so much what appeared possible and realistic to achieve – in a somewhat pessimistic and resigned manner – but rather to look at the true reality of Africa and the Africans, at their needs and strengths, at the life pulsating throughout the continent, at men, women, and children.
Hence there was the intent to look at the possibility – and it is real – of prolonging lives, at the possibility – and it is realistic – of drawing out and enhancing new energies of hope and commitment.
For DREAM, which aims to reflect the way of vision and attitudes of the Community of Sant’ Egidio, the encounter with the problem constituted by AIDS was not merely a brusque contact with an emergency, an injustice. That encounter signified above all a meeting with people, with concrete people.
 
So doubtless, sick people expressed their need of healing and salvation, but there were also people who allowed their desire for a restored future to shine through, for fullness of life to be reached. They gave the impression that, beyond the present vulnerability and difficulties, lay great potential resources of wider commitment and involvement, of hope and endeavour not only for themselves, but for an entire continent that has been robbed of time and life.
 
 
Awareness of the huge potential inherent in the deliverance of the African people became stronger with time, as little by little, the first patients of the programme started to feel better and to ask how they could become involved. Together with the European and African workers of DREAM, they wanted to do their utmost so that treatment, which had finally taken feasible shape, could reach as many other men and women as possible. Thus it came to be, in a spontaneous upsurge, that many sick people undergoing antiretroviral therapy – first just a handful from the early days and then gradually, an ever more consistent number – became involved in a wide and generous framework of activists who want to support and spread the programme. These men and women saw their lives being restored to them and in their turn felt duty-bound to give their renewed lives in restitution, as a gift, to put themselves at the service of a movement of hope and rebirth.

This movement – although prevalent in every place where DREAM is present – is especially thriving in Mozambique, the country where DREAM made its first steps. Here an association of campaigners linked to the programme was born in December 2003 with the name ‘Mulheres para o dream’, ‘Women for a dream’ (But men have joined them in their work so there are proposals to change the name of the association to ‘Humanidade para o dream’). These men and women who dream are not so much volunteers in the western sense of the word, as workers who are part of the programme, receiving a regular wage to undertake an irreplaceable function of support and counselling. The campaigners’ commitment is a further step in the process of treatment, the importance of which is no less crucial than the actual treatment.
DREAM campaigners, men and women, spread a simple but decisive message: “AIDS can be treated”. The ‘Mulheres para o dream’ – there are hundreds of them today in Mozambique – welcome those who come to the centres for the first time, they encourage them, help them to trust, to start to follow antiretroviral therapy or to treat their children. Sometimes, children who come to our centres – often orphaned children, raised by grandparents or neighbours – are the primary carers, like mothers. Above all, campaigners fight the stigma and marginalization that come with the disease, testifying through their words and lives that AIDS is not a death sentence, that “resurrection” is possible and that the future is still open to them and their loved ones.

At times, when they are talking, they are overcome by emotion as they recall a personal story of suffering and neglect, a story that however suddenly took a positive turn when the person encountered the programme of Sant’Egidio. This is how the fear of stigma is overcome. The campaigners have rediscovered, thanks to their physical state of health, dignity and a place in society. They no longer deny they have a disease which, before treatment became available, meant a twofold death sentence, first social and later physiological. Instead, they become more tenacious and convincing allies of the DREAM programme in the struggle against AIDS. Their bodies bear the signs of the effectiveness of antiretroviral treatment and accepting to share their experiences with others, they spread a sort of “contra” infection, propagating hope and confidence in treatment.

The extraordinary importance of campaigners cannot be stressed enough, both for the success of DREAM as well as for the emancipation of a figure traditionally seen as subordinate in society: the African woman.
           
For us, campaigners are a formidable, irreplaceable support, which allowed us to give birth to a new model of treatment of AIDS in Africa, a model that ultimately went far beyond a merely medical profile to be transformed into a global approach. This approach takes on the whole world of the sick person and wants excellence in treatment for him (for her).
The synergy between the work of DREAM campaigners and that of medical personnel represents one of the features of the programme that most guarantees its effectiveness. DREAM campaigners, after a long period of formation, undertake the invaluable activity of peer health education that goes well beyond simple basics about the HIV virus to cover many other aspects of life: alimentation, nutritional counselling with a special focus on weaning babies, sanitation in the home and personal hygiene, prevention of infectious pathologies, for example, by recommending the use of mosquito nets and filters to make water drinkable, and much, much more.

So much more, in fact, that their work is not restricted to the DREAM centres: they become itinerant, reaching the social fabric of their neighbourhood or village, of nearby neighbourhoods and villages. They go wherever there are people who are still unaware about the treatment opportunities available to counter the HIV epidemic. They go to inform and to make people aware, but also to support and encourage sick people who have already approached antiretroviral therapy, to offer their human and psychological support, to monitor adherence to drug prescriptions. All this is fundamental to achieve the aims of reducing dropout rates or to do away with poor adherence to the programme.
Moreover, for many women who had been wounded by exclusion and stigma, the association has become a fundamental path toward re-immersion into life, as well as a means to recover economic, cultural and social dignity. They can return to work, find meaning and strength in helping others, they become active vehicles of the transmission of awareness and of practices, of a revolution in mentality. From being the main victim of AIDS (in all African countries, rates of HIV among women are higher than those among men), the woman has become a protagonist in the struggle for freedom from the disease, an instrument for the formation of consciences, a witness for heightened awareness about the right to treatment, all in all, a richness for the country in which she lives.

Today, with the expansion and consolidation of DREAM in several African countries, the role of campaigners has gradually become increasingly public. Invited to participate in television debates and radio broadcasts, interviewed by leading national newspapers, called to give lectures or to share their testimony with ever larger audiences, our campaigners reveal the enormous capacity for change that is always roused in human beings by the revival of hope. They have paved the way for a deep and radical process of awareness-raising.

Listening to these people speak with strength, conviction and competence, many men and women, often with minimal educational qualifications, have finally become aware of problems that thus far had been relegated to a dark corner of national debate, or else to some comfortable niche of convenient resignation. The witness of personal healing, of personal “resurrection”, is reaching an increasingly vast circle and it is becoming the symbol, metaphor, of a more general healing, of a “cultural revolution” destined to touch the entire African continent.