MDT Project Coordinator Mateke Rakojoama was a teacher before she joined the staff, and when she is leading, that shows.
She is standing at the front of the Community Hall, facing a group of about 30 people, most of whom are women much older than she is, all of whom are HIV+. She has asked for five volunteers and at first no one budges, but Mateke will wait.
A few of the women finally gather in the middle of the room and form the tight-knit circle she has called for. One person stands in the center and she urges the other women to crowd around her even closer.
She then instructs the woman in the center, standing as rigidly as a board, to let go. To relax all of her muscles, to release all tension, to make no effort to stay up right. Slowly, she sways into the other woman, who push back gently against her. Her face melts. She was once perplexed, but now she is at peace.
After a minute of this, Mateke tells them to switch it up. Another person is shuffled into the middle, and this time it is she who leans into the other women who form a wall of protection around her. She can’t help but laugh.
A few more groups try, and once the laughter has bubbled into a cacophony of mirth, Mateke silences everyone. She asks them all to think about how it felt to be supported. How it felt to be supportive.
“I didn’t understand what you were saying when you told me to let go,” one of the women volunteers. “I didn’t understand how I wouldn’t fall. And then when I was in the circle I realized, of course, I wouldn’t let her fall.”
Mateke smiles, having made her point. That is what Support Group is all about. When you are dealt the hand of being HIV+, it can feel like an insurmountable challenge. It can be hard to imagine how to move forward. In this Support Group, they do not let each other fall prey to those thoughts.
It is possible to live a good and full life with HIV with a little help.
On the first Tuesday of the month, they go to the local clinic together for checkups and medication renewals. On the third Tuesday of every month they gather in the Community Hall for discussions and exercises like this one described above. In the past, Mateke has led discussions about everything from abuse and alcohol to love and family.
The group also splits into smaller groups of about four or five people who travel to other villages to educate them about HIV. They encourage people to get tested and know their status, as well as describe coping mechanisms for living with the condition, and how to support family members who may be HIV+. They also participate in a large World AIDs Day event of education in Malealea.
Their message is that it is always better to know and to take care of it, because it can be taken care of, than to live and deteriorate in ignorance.
Together, they vow to support each other, always, and to spread the word about living positively while positive.
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