The Selfless Journey of 10,000 Steps
Nora is a great-grandmother who lives outside a remote village in Namibia. Nearly blind and infected with HIV, her commitment to her family never wanes – especially for the children orphaned at her doorstep.
63-year-old Nora Thomson makes her monthly 5-mile walk to the local hospital. She is going blind and takes the tiring trek with 14-month-old great-granddaughter Pemai strapped to her back, but she has little choice. She travels dutifully to secure the life-saving antiretroviral therapy medication (ART) that is essential for her and her grandson, 13-year-old Santi. Both are HIV-positive, so without this medicine they would face sickness and eventually a slow, miserable death.
Although Nora has already raised 15 children – nine who are still alive – she has become the sole caregiver to four more: three grandchildren and great-granddaughter, Pemai. All were dropped off as babies, their own parents unable or unwilling to care for them.
HIV/AIDS is one of the greatest development challenges for Namibia and is the leading cause of death among adults. It is the sixth leading cause among children under 5 years of age, and the epidemic has generated a large population of orphans and vulnerable children (OVC).
“It’s not easy to raise grandchildren and great-grandchildren at my age, but there’s nothing that I can do,” says Nora. “When Santi came here, he was just dropped off as a very, very small baby. Pemai, too, was dropped off as a very small baby. I do not want to do that to them again – to drop them off somewhere else. I just have to take care of them – myself and God.”
Although life is hard for this multigenerational family, there was a time when things were even harder. Santi’s viral load has decreased significantly since he started his treatments and now this number is almost undetectable. He is also able to control his asthmatic wheezing through medication.
HOPE for the forgotten
Anatolia, a Project HOPE Community Health Worker, met Nora’s family in February of 2017. She works as part of the team for HOPE’s Namibia Adherence and Retention Project (NARP), hired to help with the struggle to keep up the challenging lifelong regimen of HIV medication and to support those people living with HIV and those affected, such as orphans and vulnerable children and their caregivers. NARP provides community-based HIV prevention, care and treatment support services in line with global UNAIDS goals.
When Anatolia first met Santi, he didn’t have a birth certificate – a somewhat common occurrence among orphans and vulnerable children which can be problematic when trying to secure services.
“I referred him to the Ministry of Home Affairs and they registered him so that he was able to get a birth certificate,” Anatolia recalls. “After that I came for another household visit and referred him to the Ministry of Gender to register him for a social grant. Now he also receives regular income from the government.”
(Namibia’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare works to ensure gender equality and equitable socioeconomic development of women and men and the wellbeing of children.)
“Santi’s viral load when originally checked was 7,877.3, and now, after years of continued ART, his viral load is undetectable.”
A child’s burden and dream
Santi has asked Anatolia why he needs to take the medication. She emphasizes that adhering to the treatment gives him a brighter future.
“You need to take this to prolong your life, Santi,” says Anatolia. “To grow and to prosper in whatever you choose.”
At this point, Santi wants to be a teacher when he grows up, so Anatolia and Nora encourage him to study hard.
Although Santi is doing well, challenges remain for the family.
“I am old,” says Nora. “I can only manage to do some household chores. Santi is the one who is responsible to cook dinners for the household because I can no longer see well enough.”
And now it’s time to attend to great-granddaughter Pemai, who often lies listlessly on her blanket. She will receive HIV testing soon. Anatolia will also help Nora secure Pemai’s missing birth certificate which may lead to more government assistance.
“I am so thankful for Anatolia. She has made sure that Santi received a social grant which assists me in raising him. Also, during Project HOPE’s support group meetings, we receive good information on HIV as well as learning about saving money. To Anatolia and Project HOPE, I am truly grateful.”