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Members of a support group for people living with HIV in Busota, Uganda dance a celebration dance before their meeting begins. Just like support groups in Tanzania and Kenya, they celebrate life, even though they are living with HIV. LASHINDA CLARK

Members of a support group for people living with HIV in Busota, Uganda dance a celebration dance before their meeting begins. Just like support groups in Tanzania and Kenya, they celebrate life, even though they are living with HIV. LASHINDA CLARK

HIV experience in Africa to benefit Canadian clinic

Gladys Terichow
November 28, 2008

WINNIPEG, Man.—Once a week Nicole Melnyk takes a break from her studies in the University of Manitoba's nursing program to write policies and procedure guidelines for a student-run health clinic in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the city.

The clinic, Winnipeg Interprofessional Student Health (WISH), plans to operate one drop-in clinic per week in the ethnically diverse Point Douglas area and offer community workshops and seminars on various topics relating to health and wellness.

Melnyk, a fourth year student, said stories she heard in Tanzania and Kenya during a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) learning tour in May 2008 guided her thoughts this past year as she served on a committee that developed clinic regulations.

These stories, she said, continue to guide her as she is awaiting the opening of the clinic and learning more about the social, cultural, economic and environmental factors that influence health.

“It changed my perspective and outlook for the clinic,” she said. “It changed my way of thinking about my role in suffering. We saw how people were supporting each other—this has solidified my views and challenged me to really do something for the communities in Winnipeg.”

Melnyk was one of six college-age participants from Canada and the United States and six participants from Kenya and Tanzania traveling together on a three-week cross-cultural learning tour to meet people and organizations on the front lines of dealing with the spread and impact of HIV in their communities.

One of the lasting memories from this trip was meeting people living with HIV who get together weekly in support groups to talk about their struggles. Participants in some of the support groups make crafts to earn income for themselves and their church.

“When people stood up to share their stories they used hand gestures and smiles,” recalled Melnyk. “They did not focus on what happened or how it happened, but how to overcome it.”

Many participants started their stories by stating they were “living positively with HIV”—a phrase that indicated they had tested positive for HIV antibodies and live positive, happy and productive lives with the virus.

She was especially impressed with Jo-Jo, a talented 17-year-old boy who creates beautiful and elaborate banana leaf artwork—an ancient craft where artists cut tiny slices of banana leaves which are woven and pasted together to create a painting. Jo-Jo's favourite designs are animals from Africa and people participating in traditional activities and dances.

“He doesn’t have parents—they both died from AIDS,” said Melnyk. “He can’t afford to go to school but he is so motivated to live, to survive and do the things that he likes doing.”

Jo-Jo, she said, has dreams of establishing a career as an artist. “If he continues being part of this support group I believe he will be motivated to live his dream.”

This motivation, she said, comes from the examples of others in the group who are living productive lives with the virus and from a network of churches and faith-based organizations that support people living with HIV.

Reflecting on the support that makes it possible for many people in Kenya and Tanzania to “live positively” with HIV, Melnyk sees the potential for greater personal involvement to help people in Canada “live positively” with HIV and other health concerns.

“It is hard for me to help the people in Africa but I can make a difference in Winnipeg,” she said. “No matter where you live, suffering is still suffering. People are suffering at home, as well as in Africa.”

She also sees her personal involvement in the clinic as a vital link to helping her live out her faith. Some of the churches supporting people living with HIV in Africa operate under the motto—Serving humanity, serving God.

“Seeing how they were supporting their own people encouraged me a lot,” she said. “It made me want to take this slogan as my own mission.”