We are not alone anymore
“We are not alone anymore” by Clarisse Cunha
Here are some facts we know: bicycles are the most viable transport solution for short distances in sub-Saharan Africa considering affordability, load capacity, speed, range, maintenance, ease of procurement and infrastructure required. These technical facts are well documented and discussed in several studies. But that is not what I want to discuss here. What I want to discuss is what we still do not know (at least not well enough) about the real changes bicycles bring to peoples’ lives at the most individual level. Do bicycles change a person’s sense of vulnerability and powerlessness? What are the lessons we learn from people we are trying to help? Here is what I have been learning from Namibians.
Namibia has one of Africa’s lowest population densities with less than two million people in an area about 2.5 times the size of Germany. More than 40 per cent of the population lives in north-central regions, and about 67 per cent inhabits rural areas. Different from what we expect from a stereotypical “African village”, what characterises Namibian villages are distances. You do not see dozens of huts together. On the contrary, you walk and walk and what you see is great space; kilometres between each homestead; several hour walks from homesteads to schools, clinics, markets, and churches.
Difficulties with distances are exacerbated as Namibia faces the combination of ineffective social services delivery and a staggering 23 per cent prevalence of HIV/AIDS amongst the adult population. The health system has been struggling to cope with the number of people admitted to hospitals with AIDS-related illnesses, but the shortage of healthcare professionals remains a hindrance. In rural areas, the lack of transport system isolates communities from access to health care, treatment and support. One solution from the grassroots level is to focus on home-based care projects. These initiatives enable people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) to receive visits from trained community volunteers who assist with household chores; provide counselling and information on adequate nutrition, hygiene and health; deliver medication and sanitary supplies; and provide basic alleviations from common symptoms.
Home-based care volunteers’ role is to overcome the social isolation faced by PLWHA. Besides carrying medications and supplies, they carry prayers, patience to listen, and words of hope. Over 50 per cent of home-based care volunteers are more than 50-years-old. Over 90 per cent are women. The majority are also HIV positive and as poor as their clients. However, rather than facing age-, gender-, poverty- or health-related pressures, they have the strength to help their neighbours. Without appropriate means of transport, they walk up to 20km/day to help PLWHA to live more comfortably in their homes.
Since May 2005 the Bicycling Empowerment Network Namibia (BEN Namibia) has arranged the delivery of about 3,000 bicycles to home-based care volunteers in Northern and North-eastern regions. The reasons we focus on volunteers are obvious: with bicycles they can see more clients, deliver more supplies, and stay longer with each client. However, in an attempt to both elaborate and challenge anecdotal evidence, from July 2006 we initiated a series of participatory assessments with bicycle recipients and other community members, including clients.
Thus far, we have confirmed that bicycles do help volunteers to expand and improve their service delivery. With bicycles, it is easier to assist clients to get to clinics and to help them staying on treatment. Bicycles boost the flow of information in the village, i.e. volunteers can easily arrange meetings, or search for help. Bicycles save time for women to do domestic activities in their own houses and take care of their own families. We have also found negative impacts followed by their coping strategies, particularly in terms of repair and maintenance.
We have certainly learnt from the assessments, but we should recognise that none of these points are new. What is new, and probably the real lesson learnt, is the unseen but more significant change bicycles promote in clients’ lives. In a country like Namibia, where distance rules, PLWHA bear the weight of social and geographic isolation. They are twice distant from other people and from community life. They cannot talk much about their status because stigma is still the social norm. Supportive friends and relatives are too distant to make frequent connections.
|“when our caregivers have bicycles we are not alone anymore”|
With bicycles, however, volunteers overcome the challenges of the Namibian great spaces. In the clients’ words, “when our caregivers have bicycles we are not alone anymore”, “we know they will be there when needed”. They can give quicker responses. They can stay longer and listen, and talk, and share. Bicycles make people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS feel less vulnerable and powerless. It provides the possibility of sharing life experience. With bicycles, besides bringing more supplies and medications; volunteers bring more happiness, trust, confidence and pride to clients. All in all, apart from the well-known idea of bicycles as affordable means of transport for sub-Saharan Africa, I have learnt that bicycles allow PLWHA to live a more dignifying, human, and less isolated life.This opinion piece was contributed by Clarisse Cunha, Project Coordinator of Ben Bikes Namibia.
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