Life forces are stronger than despair, disease and death. Such is the message that comes out strongly from Joel Mafrausi as he lovingly pays attention to the work before him, his hand moving deftly, yet without splashing too much paint on the T-shirt he is designing.
Other members of the group involved in the screen printing of T-shirts with messages on HIV and Aids stand around him, watching as he demonstrates how to go about the task like a sage, awaiting their turn.
Members of this group, numbering about 20, are living with HIV but have not looked at their situation as a death sentence.
They have chosen to defy the disease and make a positive impact in society through their valuable contribution.
But as Mafrausi reflects, seeking societal acceptance has not been a stroll in the park for many of them.
They had had to put up a spirited fight against stigma and discrimination prevalent in a society that is struggling to embrace people living with HIV and Aids.
“We are now hardened,” Mafrausi says. “If someone tries to stir up discriminatory tendencies in the community, we hit back by speaking positively about our HIV status.”
Through a programme called Ambassadors of Hope, run by the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society (ZRCS), Mafrausi says they were trained how to effectively deal with stigma and the ostracisation they often encounter in their day-to-day lives.
He adds that their burning desire is to enlighten society about HIV rather than let people remain in ignorance, which eventually gives birth to stigmatisation.
Mafrausi, who is the district representative for Zimbabwe National Network of People Living with HIV (ZNNP+) and chairperson of the Tawananyasha Support Group, says they decided to come together as HIV positive people and harness their talents in income generating projects in 2006.
Gloria Mudhingo, another member of the group, says the dramas they also stage have helped significantly, bringing laughter and relaxation, breaking the sombre mood often erroneously associated with people living with HIV and Aids.
“Through the dramas,” she says, “we also give information (about HIV and Aids) as well as entertain people in the community.”
Turning to the T-shirt screen printing, she says they use fabric paint because it is durable. Among their biggest customers, she adds, is the Methodist Church.
She says while they had brought in different ideas when they first came together, it was Mafrausi who led from the front as he had had experience in the printing business.
Apart from screen printing, the group also has other life streams including theatre production and internal savings, often referred to as “round” whereby members contribute money which is collected and given to an individual monthly on a rotational basis.
When the project kicked off, the members pooled their financial resources as an investment, until the ZRCS chipped in with 100 plain T-shirts, which they later designed.
After designing and selling the T-shirts, the group members share the dividends among themselves.
They have been able to earn a living through the project. Mudhingo said:
“From the money that we realise through this project, we are able to buy food and get money for school fees for our children.”
But given that business is not always brisk, Mafrausi said they are now seriously considering engaging in fisheries to boost their income.
Although they capitalised on their artistic talents, he added that they also received training in screen printing to enhance the quality of their products.
Apart from this work, members of the group also have individual pursuits, with most of them involved in market gardening and they only meet every Thursday to process whatever T-shirt orders would be available.
Their desire is to have a bigger, competitive market share as they have the capacity to print as many as 2 000 T-shirts.
Mafrausi says they would also like to have exchange programmes with HIV positive people in other provinces so that they can interact and share notes on how to enhance the quality of their lives and share ideas for projects.
ZRCS marketing and public relations officer Takemore Mazuruse says this is part of their nationwide programmes that “help in alleviating the plight of people” as well as “promoting human dignity of the most vulnerable groups”.
The programmes, he says, are “integrated in nature” and thus cover a wide range of issues such as water and sanitation, food security and livelihoods, health, HIV and Aids as well as disaster preparedness and management and they address the needs of the same vulnerable groups.
He adds: “The Murombedzi screen printing programme . . . is one of the many ZRCS interventions that feed into our vision of answering to the needs of the disadvantaged Zimbabweans.”