Monica Masaka (30) arrives at one of the homesteads in the village in Zvimba and immediately goes about her work, bathing her patient and dressing up her wound with bandages from her kit before feeding her.
She speaks gently to the patient and her three children, deserted by her husband five years ago to die alone.
Masaka also sees to it that the children are fed before packing up and moving to the next homestead, about 400m away, to attend to the next patient.
She goes over almost the same routine until she covers 10 households.
“I just said to myself that I had to do it,” she says with a shrug, “because if I didn’t, perhaps nobody would.”
It’s an enormous responsibility, moving around the village to feed, bathe, treat and cheer up, among other things, those people whom society generally perceives as the “scum of the earth” and would not have anything to do with, including those tied to them by blood.
It takes a heart of gold to walk this road which, for this home-based care-giver, has become a way of life. Masaka cares lovingly for HIV positive villagers under her care.
For all her labours, there is no pay, not even a token of appreciation. In fact, she is the one who forks out $10 annually as a sign of her commitment.
Masaka is just one of the many home-based care-givers working under the banner of the International Commitee Red Cross (ICRC) in Mashonaland West as the economically overwhelmed government increasingly finds itself unable to go it alone in the fight against HIV and Aids.
Another care-giver, Kindman Dimbo (36), says he was driven by his search for answers in 1996 after witnessing death’s merciless harvest of friends and relatives.
“When I heard that the Red Cross was offering training to volunteer care workers,” he remembers, “I quickly grabbed the opportunity. I wanted to fully understand what this was all about.”
He says back then, people would not assist someone infected with virus for fear of contracting it too, adding that there was a misconception about the inter-connectedness of HIV and acts of questionable morality such as prostitution.
“As far as many people were concerned, Aids was a sex disease,” Dimbo says.
“Now we educate relatives while caring for their loved ones.”
Now, his role is mainly supervisory, with 67 care facilitators under his authority.
“As a supervisor, I compile reports of the 10 clinics that we have here, referring client issues to the relevant departments,” he says.
Most volunteers, he says, are communal farmers so they easily offer voluntary services in their spare time without worrying about payment. The volunteers often have a client ratio of 1:10 if clients are bed-ridden, but in other instances it can be 1:20.
“In the latter cases,” he says, “the volunteer’s job is mainly centred on monitoring drug adherence, health education on safer sex and the appropriate foods.”
The volunteers often cover between two and three villages as they go about their labour of love.
There are however drawbacks now and again in instances where there is lack of adequate resources.
Ideally, a caregiver has to operate with an HBC kit which includes gloves, paracetamol drug, and disinfectants like Jik, soap, roller bandages, an apron and cotton wool.
“HBC is a holistic programme that includes psycho-social support, education on the kind of foods the patient has to take, with emphasis on nutrition,” he said.
“So, you have challenges in cases where there is no food at home. It means you can’t talk about nutrition in the first place.”
Another care-giver, Agatha Mutumburi (56), was raised in a family anchored in love, in so many ways; it was only natural that she ended up in this line of work. “I grew up in a family with parents who wanted to help everyone,” she says.
“So, naturally, these values were inculcated into me.”
She also became a volunteer in 1996 after the Red Cross had kick-started the programme in Mashonaland West.
Because they are no financial or any other such rewards in this line of work, Mutumburi says it is all about love.
“You have to be merciful. We go to church. We are believers,” she says, “so this makes it easier and meaningful.”
At the district level, Mutumburi says they have 1 538 clients under the HBC programme and 7 000 children under the Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC) programme.
“As supervisors, we do follow-ups to see how the volunteers on the ground are working, teaching them and encouraging them in their work,” she says.
She says while they would need a lot of volunteers because they have to cover an extensive area, the major drawback was that some of the people willing to join the HBC programme as volunteers could not afford the $10 membership fee.
She says they also need bicycles to make the volunteers’ work easier given some of the distances they have to cover as they move around ministering to the patients.
She adds that HIV-related deaths have decreased courtesy of the work that volunteers are putting in as they have encouraged most of the patients to be part of the various support groups.
According to Red Cross provincial programmes officer for Mashonaland West, Judith Chipenzi, HBC has gone a long way in busting myths about HIV and Aids, which had in past years significantly fed stigma and discrimination.
She says the caregivers undergo some training on how to go about the work, and if the patient under their care dies, the relationship continues as they also extend their care to the children who would have been left behind.
“If the parents die, care-givers remain looking after children that would have been left behind. The children actually refer to the caregiver as amai (mother),” she says.