Walking alongside people

My name is Thandiswa Blie. I work for an organisation in the Western Cape called Mamelani, where I am a health facilitator on the Wellness Programme, sharing knowledge with people about their health. I focus on nutrition, chronic illness and HIV and AIDS.

Mamelani came into being around 2003. I have been there from the start, although my journey to Mamelani began a while before that when I worked as a volunteer carer at a drop-in centre for children who were living on the streets (this centre is now a partner of Mamelani). During that time – and perhaps also because there was so much stigma and stereotyping about “street kids” – I got so attached to these young boys. I noticed that there was some kind of racial divide between the boys (who were between the ages of 7 and 16 years), and I made it my mission to bridge those divisions. I was supposed to be there as a volunteer for only three months, but the organisation decided to keep me on as an employee.

I used to have many conversations with another volunteer at the drop-in centre (who is now in the leadership of Mamelani). We found ourselves talking a lot about HIV and AIDS, and I had that feeling in me that I needed to do something about HIV. Two stories in the media touched me particularly at that time. One was a billboard and television insert about a guy called “Lucky” who was HIV+ and lucky enough to be supported by his parents and family, despite his status. The other story I heard on the radio. It was about a man from my province of the Eastern Cape, who was rejected by his family because he was HIV+. These stories confirmed for me that people in our communities who were dealing with issues of HIV and AIDS needed to be supported, comforted and listened to. My friend and colleague pushed me, asking me: “So what are you going to do about your wish to work on this issue?” I felt that in order to “do something” about HIV, I needed to know more and I went to lots and lots of workshops. I learned so many different things – how to be with and care for someone who is HIV+; the role of ARVs (anti-retroviral medication); how to adhere to medication; what is the best nutrition, etc. With help and support, I got myself through all of these workshops, because I was not working formally at the time.

I started to write down everything I learnt from my workshops and these notes became the first session in the Mamelani manual. I compiled it myself. It was called: “Understanding HIV/AIDS”. I used to undermine myself, thinking that I am not formally educated and given the context where I come from. I was surprised that this could happen, that I could record my own learning and draw on my own story and experience and contribute to something that helps others learn. It is kind of funny because this is also what Paulo Freire says is important – that we must not downplay the importance of people’s experience or of the power of writing our own stories!

Mamelani gets its name from the Xhosa word “masimamelane” which means “we must listen”. We believe that only through listening to the real needs of communities can real change happen. It was at Training for Transformation that the deep meaning of this concept became clear to me. I attended both the Certificate and Diploma courses. At the Diploma course, the Learning Teaching Teams (where you practise designing and facilitating workshops), played a big role in my learning, because then I had to change the ways I was working and doing workshops. The main shift and learning was not to choose or impose the topic for people, they must choose. You can see the “spark” of a theme that is relevant to people – when for example we ask people to write down a problem and there are a number of people in the room all agreeing that “Yes! This is it, this is the issue, this thing is really happening!”, you see the spark in the energy in the room. TfT gave me the way of letting them choose what problem to focus on and ways of encouraging them to action plan themselves. I think people must work, I must walk alongside, I must not decide for them and I must not try to solve their problems – they must solve their problems. Giving people the space and power to name things and work through things for themselves is important. It also gives me time and space as a facilitator to observe – their emotions, the process, the dynamics, my own stuff.

So, since the early days of Mamelani, running workshops has been a core part of my work. I have facilitated many, many workshops across a number of different townships in Cape Town. Because there was so much stigma around HIV and AIDS, we thought: “Let’s add a focus on chronic illnesses like diabetes and hypertension”. So we give information on nutrition, chronic illnesses and then also on HIV and AIDS. There is a personal aspect to the workshops – people offload their problems and their stress. We also focus on the family, the workplace, the community – like the Holon systems that I learnt at TfT. We have a number of sessions and follow-up sessions with a group or individual, and in so doing we build on and strengthen what they are already doing.

One of the challenges in the area of HIV and AIDS is that people are defaulting on their ARV medication and not being consistent and compliant. There are many reasons for this. Some are working and are not allowed to take time off regularly or are anxious about taking time off or explaining to the employer why they need to be absent from work from time to time. Our response to this challenge is an exciting development in my work at Mamelani – Community clubs. We recruit members to join our community club, highlighting the benefits. We say: “If you join the club, you can collect your meds at your club venue rather than waiting for a much longer time at a clinic. Someone can also collect your medication on your behalf as long as you have had your bloods checked and you do attend the club as a member”.

The response has been very positive in this short time since starting this initiative and at the moment although we only have one club, we are working towards having three. Of course, this job has its challenges, it is not easy. It needs patience and kindness and humanity to connect with the people. The counselling role needs “guts”, you need to be strong. I also have other skills that I gained along the way, particularly around stress reduction and relaxation that help me in my work. I have knowledge and skills in alternative and holistic health methods, like massage, Reiki (a healing technique combining energy and touch) and practices that connect body-mind-spirit towards healing and recovery from trauma (like breath work, tai chi and acupressure). I feel good knowing that I am making these services that most people can’t afford to pay for, accessible to many. I also explain to people that there is nothing strange about these methods and that they have been used for centuries. Generally, there is a good response from people because they experience for themselves that the methods work.

At TfT, a highlight for me personally was meeting such a diverse group of people from far and wide. I was really interested in the cultural differences between us and it made me learn how to adapt and to fully understand differences between people. Today I can say that I am not like before. I was always so angry, I used to be triggered and respond immediately! Something about TfT made me more harmonious, within myself and with others. The laughter and tears in that training room and the love from the facilitators made me strong. I felt so accepted and acknowledged by facilitators and that made me confident. I did not feel judged based on where I came from, my level of formal education or my age. Since that experience I have been just going from strength to strength and I am ready to keep on doing what I do to make the world a better place.