Two years ago, the idea was put forth to the AIDS Society of Kamloops (ASK) board of directors that a group of staff would like to fundraise to travel to Swaziland, South Africa, with Developing World Connections and look for opportunities to provide the same outreach and social justice services that the ASK Wellness Centre provides in BC. We also wanted to experience the culture and to see what it looks like when an entire country has been devastated by HIV/AIDS. This trip was the result of a group of individuals coming together who authentically care for and practice human justice, the advocacy for quality of life, and empathy. Mix that with the bravery to step outside the box, experience a new culture, and take the risk to do something that seemed an overwhelming task, and you have the ASK Goes Global Team. Out of 17 individuals that went, 10 were ASK employees. We were also joined by several project sponsors and a Chief Medical Officer with the Interior Health Authority.
In Swaziland, one out of every four adults is living with HIV. Swaziland has the highest rate of HIV in the world and is the poorest country in the world. Women are particularly affected by this epidemic. Among 15-49 year olds, 31 percent of women are HIV positive, compared to 20 percent of men that are HIV positive. The average life expectancy is 45 years of age.
Our trip was not about trying to change a community. Our trip was to nurture hope and compassion within ourselves as social workers and in those we met. We replicated the work that ASK does in BC within the small communities around Mbabane. Even without a common language, we were able to develop trust, respect and a sense of hope with the people we supported in Swaziland. We saw this in the faces of the Swazi people whom have maintained their dignity in the face of incredible poverty. Just as we see that dignity in our community for those who face multiple barriers and marginalization. Hope is what maintains the spirit to survive insurmountable odds.
What we physically completed was truly remarkable and a testament to the efforts of not only our team but the agencies on the ground: SOS Children’s Village (in Swaziland) and Kamloops’ own agency, Developing World Connections. We built an entire school house from scratch, completed five large gardens and planted 1500 seedlings, provided health navigation and worked with the medical staff at a Swazi Hospital in Mbabane, provided outreach services to three small communities and fed over 500 people.
Across the world, in a place called Swaziland, there are families and children whom we know by name and have seen their homes and the communities they reside in. They possess a strength and kindness that shines on the darkest of nights, letting us know that “they are here” and they have the will and the fight to survive.