Five years ago, Falanes Josephat hit rock bottom: she suspected her husband of being HIV positive, got tested and found out she was too. In poor, rural Malawi, this meant one thing: death. And, in her case, leaving behind four small children with the bleakest of futures. ‘I was depressed. I thought I would die fast,’ says the 38 year-old mother.
Five years on, not only is she still alive, she has a job and even a future. Wearing a bright head scarf, Falanes stands smiling inside a phone kiosk, chatting away with her clients. Her youthful features and her pink t-shirt give nothing away of her daily struggle with disease and her survival on antiretrovirals (ARV). The reason for her cheerfulness is hope of a dignified life. Since 2009, she belongs to the Chiyanjano HIV support group, set up by the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) in Gumulira, Malawi. The group has become a source of strength and even income to its 23 members, including 7 men.
‘We held discussions within the community, and sensitized its members to help them create the support group and share experiences,’ explains Noah Katantah, the MVP health coordinator in Gumulira. Group members were then trained in ‘management of common illnesses and the creation of income generating activities.’
In early 2010, the mobile company Zain (since rebranded Airtel) installed the phone kiosk in a small dusty square. With its flashy colors and the solar panel shining on its roof, it looked more like a just landed UFO than a business opportunity in this poor village. But the Chiyanjano group, one of four groups selected to man such kiosks, saw the chance they were being offered.
The group today offers to recharge mobile phone batteries using solar power at 20 Malawian kwacha (1 US cent) and make phone calls at 60 kwacha (3 US cents) per minute. Clients can also buy scratch cards. ‘We collect all our profits into a joint fund and then use the money to help members,’ says Falanes. Recently, the group paid for the funerals of a friend and bought a new power inverter for the kiosk.
Powered with renewed confidence, the group is venturing into more business projects. ‘We are constructing a shed for the cow we will get from the MVP,’ says Falanes. The project is preparing to distribute 5 cows to different community groups to help them boost their nutrition income with milk and generate income from its sales. Some women also received chickens to rear.
But the Chiyanjano group is not only about financial security. It’s also about moral support. The MVP provided them with two bicycles that they use to get ARV from the nearest hospital, which is 15 km from Gumulira. ‘Through sensitization, we also managed to bring couples into the group,’ says Noah - a breakthrough in a community where due to gender disparities men are the ones who decide how and when sexual encounters occur. This puts women at higher risk of HIV infection hence the importance of male involvement.
‘In an effort to ensure greater involvement of people living with HIV and AIDS, the support groups are continually being used to reach other people with prevention messages. Through the MVP integrated development, the groups are also benefiting from business and agricultural sectors in initiating income generating activities. This is important for increasing their economic livelihoods,’ explains Philip Wambua, the regional HIV/Aids advisor for East and Southern Africa. ‘The future plan is to empower these groups more and partner with them as prevention ambassadors in the villages where we work.’
For Falanes, the future is not about sliding into slow death anymore but about keeping her children, who are HIV negative, healthy, educating them and making the most of each day. ‘Now with our money, we can buy things we couldn’t afford like soap and eggs. We’re much better off!’