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Community project mitigates impact of HIV/AIDS, job losses

[Zambia] At a community school in Nthombimbi, Zambia, children gather around a water pump. The school is staffed and maintained by the community for children who cannot afford to attend formal school. Many of the pupils are orphans. UNICEF/Giacomo Pirozzi
Zambia has a US $6.2 billion debt
A community-based project is mitigating the combined impact of widespread job losses and the HIV/AIDS epidemic on a former mining community in the central town of Kabwe, about 150 km north of the capital, Lusaka. The Chowa Railway Home-Based Care Project helps people living with HIV/AIDS adopt positive and healthy lifestyles in a township ravaged by the pandemic, while empowering the broader community. Chowa is a former mining community adjacent to a Zambia Railways township, both of which have suffered since the closure of the mine at the dawn of privatisation in the early 1990s. The community's plight was worsened by the job losses that followed the concessioning of Zambia railways in a public-private sector partnership last year. A number of other companies, whose operations had depended on the two firms, were forced to close down, leading to large-scale retrenchments, commented home-based care project coordinator Matildah Musonda. HIV/AIDS has also taken its toll on the residents of the townships. "There is a theory that after the death of their breadwinners, or their loss of employment, some families turned to prostitution as a means of survival," Musonda noted. The project was started in 1995 as a community initiative in response to the problems in the area and currently has a membership of 1,747 people living with HIV/AIDS and about 180 orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs). Although the initial objective was to offer counselling services to families affected by HIV/AIDS, the project now promotes prevention, care and support to people living with the virus, while providing food, drugs and other basic necessities. It also helps families send vulnerable children to school by making the burden of school fees less onerous. With support from the Zambia Social Investment Fund (ZAMSIF), the government's poverty reduction programme funded by the World Bank, the project has been able to extend its services to reach over 40 urban and rural communities in its catchment area of 43,550 people. It also cultivates a five-hectare piece of land and runs a hammer mill, bought in 2003 at a cost of Kwacha 18 million (US $3,865) with funding from ZAMSIF, as income-generating ventures. Residents previously had no choice but to pay the high price demanded by retailers for the maize-meal staple. Now, thanks to the hammer mill, they can buy maize-meal at a more affordable Kwacha 300 ($0.06) per 5 kg bag. "There can be no better way of fighting poverty than providing affordable services to the people. Chowa project is a classic poverty-reduction venture which has played an important role in bettering the lives of the people," said Central Province permanent secretary Richard Salivaji. ZAMSIF spent a total of Kwacha 180 million ($38,651) to buy the hammer mill, erect and electrify a building to house it, and plant trees around the complex as an environmental mitigation measure. One hundred community volunteers were trained as care providers to combat HIV/AIDS, 35 more were empowered with business and fund management skills, and another 15 were trained in psychosocial counselling. The social investment fund also bought 30 bicycles for various home-based care activities. The community contributed the equivalent of Kwacha 14 million ($3,000) to the project by providing moulding blocks, building sand, crushed stone and other locally available materials. School fees and uniforms for OVC take the largest share of proceeds from the milling business, while the rest is used to purchase supplements for people living with HIV/AIDS. Paxina Chola, a 15-year-old grade-five pupil who has lost both her parents, said life would have been difficult without the help she received from the project. "I am now able to concentrate on my studies, because I don't worry much about the food I will eat or the clothes I will wear - everything is provided by the project," she said. Her head teacher, Evans Ngulube, said the sponsorship was a motivating factor. "The pupils sponsored by the Chowa project do not feel in anyway inferior to other children who are sponsored by their parents. I think the support they get from the project helps to build their confidence," Ngulube said. Theresa Tandeo, a 37-year-old single mother living with HIV/AIDS, said the project had helped her to live positively, and her health had improved since she became a member. "This organisation has helped me to accept my status and live positively with the virus. I know that I will only die when my time comes," said Tandeo, who recently participated in a business management training course organised by the project. Martha Daka agreed: "It is not easy to be HIV positive but through the several counselling sessions I have undergone, I have learned to live positively with the virus." ZAMSIF's regional facilitator for Central Province, Joel Bwalya, said the decision to fund the Chowa project was based on his organisation's commitment to fighting poverty by investing in social amenities that benefited vulnerable people. "We realised that the most pressing need in Chowa was a hammer mill and, since our core business is to reduce poverty and improve the living standards of the people, we supported the project," Bwalya said. "Chowa is one of the most successful projects that we have funded, and we are currently working out measures to support similar projects in other parts of the country," he noted.
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