Story of resilience: Young man champions HIV & AIDS awareness
Behind the smile you can tell there is a story of resilience! The positive energy, the contagious laughter, and the commitment to community work is evident by how he articulates issues. Born and bred in Rusirevi Village under Seke a peri-urban town South East of Harare, Tonderai Rusirevi (25) is defying all odds by championing HIV/AIDS awareness in his community. This is his story.
Journey to acceptance
“Both my parents passed on in 2008 when I was only 13 years of age while I was doing Grade 7: In January I lost my mother and later my father in August. At that point I was very sick, and I would frequently be admitted in and out of hospital. My paternal grandmother took custody of me, but it was my aunt (my late father’s sister) who then suggested that I get tested for HIV. I had stopped going to school because I had developed sores on my head and nose, so I was in so much pain at the same time whilst struggling to cope with the passing on of my parents.
I vividly remember the fateful day– when I got my results at Jonasi Clinic here in Seke in the company of my aunt. I cried my lungs out and asked the nurse why I had tested positive for HIV. I had learnt about HIV in school, I had knowledge on HIV transmission – so I thought but after going through a counselling session, I understood how I got HIV. After that I was referred to Chitungwiza Central Hospital and I was enrolled on antiretroviral therapy (ART) the following day because my CD4 count was low. My journey to acceptance was easy because my aunt was very supportive, she encouraged me to take my ART medicines every day. She would take me to the clinic for routine checkups and before I knew it the sores had disappeared, and I was now very healthy and I went back to school.”
The calling: Serving the community
“I developed a passion to serve the community by raising awareness on HIV/AIDS when I joined a treatment support group here in Seke. I was very active in different programs in the community and as I grew older, I realized that there are more children in the same situation like mine and there is a lot of stigma attached to HIV/AIDS. People didn’t understand why a child my age could be HIV positive. I was eventually selected to become a Community Adolescent Treatment Supporter (CATS) by a nurse at Chitungwiza Central Hospital under Africaid’s Zvandiri Program.
I received training and mentorship on facilitating daily adherence and monitoring, providing counselling and psychosocial support, identifying and referring children, adolescents, and young people in the community to the health facility. I managed a caseload of CAYPLHIV and I am proud I played my part in the four years I served the community as a CATS, providing further support in HIV testing, treatment, care for my peers. I also raised awareness on HIV prevention, care and treatment among families and communities. Through this, I found sense of fulfilment and I also understood the importance of adherence, viral load monitoring as well. I can testify that even to date I receive messages and calls from parents, guardians, adolescents and young adults around this community seeking advice on different HIV related issues,” said Tonderai.
The bittersweet transition
“When I turned 24, I graduated from being a CATS and I was selected to volunteer as a Community Outreach Agent (COA) in 2020 under the Target, Accelerate and Sustain Quality Care for HIV epidemic control (TASQC) Program being implemented by Organization for Public Health Interventions and Development (OPHID) with support from PEPFAR through USAID Zimbabwe. I quickly adjusted into the TASQC program with ease because of my prior experience as a CATS as well as the relations and trust I had built in my community. I take HIV/AIDS awareness with a holistic approach because as a person living with HIV, I know mental health issues are very common. One day you can just wake up feeling tired and the other day very optimistic; it’s like a seesaw. So, I really understand and that my role as a COA is not only to tick the boxes and achieve targets but to connect with the people because depression is real and my goal is to be there and make sure people living with HIV in my community are healthy physically and emotionally,” said Tonderai with a huge smile.
The interventions: A collective approach
Under TASQC, OPHID and its implementing partners JF Kapnek and ZNNP+, will support targeted and accelerated HIV prevention, care, and treatment at facility as well as community level in 15 Districts across Zimbabwe. Hence, for the country to achieve the 95-95-95 targets, OPHID will make sure HIV services reach everyone in the community through a targeted and systematic approach. Tonderai is one of the 16 former CATS who will be serving as COAs around Zimbabwe (1 in Chitungwiza, 2 in Bulawayo, 5 in Gwanda, 4 in Umzingwane, 1 in Bulilima, 2 in Beitbridge and 1 in Insiza)
These cadres will facilitate this achievement through index case tracing, HIV self-test distribution, tracking and tracing for Loss to follow up clients, mobilization for viral load screening, mobilization for cervical cancer screening and treatment, Community ART Refill Group formation. The transition and linkages between OPHID and AFRICAID will foster sustainability in HIV programming and positive youth development approaches - a cross cutting theme in all the programs being supported by PEPFAR through USAID Zimbabwe.
Obert Chisenye, OPHID District Community Officer for Chitungwiza highlighted that “The benefit of engaging CATS into the TASQC Program is that they need no introduction to HIV prevention, care and treatment services because of their experience as CATS. The cadres reside in their community of operation which is very cost effective. They are well known, have existing experience in supporting the same services required under TASQC and already built trust with community members which ensures the continued provision of HIV services. Additionally, the move is set to improve community and facility linkages through referrals and follow up systems.”