Written by Ellis Brooks, former RESULTS intern and staff member:
In Navrongo, in Ghana’s northern region, I met Michael and Kibé. Six years ago the brothers lost their parents to AIDS. Then aged 17 and 13, this was more than just a crushing bereavement; it robbed them of their future prospects. Michael had been keen to attend college, but could not afford the fees, struggling to find the money even for shoes. Meanwhile, Kibé dropped out of school, whereafter his uncle began to treat him as a “donkey,” fetching and carrying.
In 2003, my partner, Jema, was in a joint UK-Ghanaian VSO team of young people. The team are now dispersed, but she kept in contact with Gabriel MacNair, one of her Ghanaian counterparts.
Later, while studying his degree, Gabriel and other students established Care Support. As volunteers, they began in 2005 to work with vulnerable young people, especially those affected by HIV. Just as blizzard- Britain was getting underway, Jema and I left to spend three weeks on the tropical south side of the African bulge to witness some of Care Support’s endeavours with Gabriel as our guide.
They work directly and through partners to raise awareness and improve welfare.
Michael and Kibé became involved with one such partner, “Wedam.” Attending monthly sessions with other young people orphaned by HIV, they found the support to move forward. Wedam helped Michael with his college fees, and found other sundries like uniform and equipment. Kibé was connected with a local garage for an apprenticeship. Their lives were not made perfect, but they now have a chance to prosper. Today Michael works as a Teaching Assistant, soon to be a teacher; Kibé aspires to run his own garage.
Wedam does not only help in this material way. With the stigma still associated with HIV, young people can often be marginalised by their peers if members of their family have carried the virus. Wedam gives them a safe space where they find they are far from alone in this. Not only do they meet others struggling with the same issues, but they also meet role models like Michael and Kibé, who are keen to continue to stay involved to help their younger peers. They show the children that there is an “other side” after the shock of losing their parents.
Approximately 260,000 Ghanaians live with HIV. Despite the impending danger of a worldwide dip in funding to fight AIDS, access to Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART) has crept up to 16% of the HIV infected population; but the social impact of the disease goes beyond even life and death. Huge clefts remain in the lives of the survivors, of those left behind, especially children. Wedam do not administer any orphanages. The extended families of AIDS orphans are their de facto carers. The interventions seek to stop them being denied the basic foundations of a future.
Cynthia, now 18, first joined Wedam after she lost her mother to AIDS in 2005. Her friends at school laughed at her, but she found kith and support at Wedam’s monthly meetings, and her confidence increased. “I don’t think I would be a human being,” she told us when I asked what life without Wedam would have been like.
We visited other communities to see more of Care Support’s work. In Yeji on Lake Volta, the children seldom go to school because their families need them to go fishing with them from midnight until 5am. Care Support has negotiated some discounted scholarships, but even then usually only one of five or more children can study per household. In Agona, a community Care Support has recently made contact with, the children have ambitions ranging from pilot to president, but their immediate needs are shoes and clothes.
My principal contribution to the many young people we met was to introduce them to various versions of playground names such tig, stuck in the mud, chain tig and bulldogs. This provided some exhilarating anarchy, but, predictably, I left feeling there is much more that needs to be done.
There is cause for hope. Ghana has democracy, it has access to natural resources and ports for trade, and it is the first African state to achieve Millennium Development Goal 1: to halve extreme poverty, wherein the most basic needs are not met. That good news must be tempered with the knowledge that almost one-in-five people remain in that extreme poverty. Care Support, then, demonstrates many Ghanaians’ sense of social responsibility amid enduring challenges. It is an example of the conscience any culture, rich or poor, needs. Something is being done.