US students looked at HIV/AIDS in Western Cape and Limpopo

US students looked at HIV/AIDS in Western Cape and Limpopo

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Every year the James Madison University from Harrisonburg, Virginia, USA, has a special program that allows undergraduate Health Science students the opportunity to ‘study abroad’. This year the main organiser, Professor Debra Sutton took her 8th group to South Africa. Since 2013 I have been fortunate enough to assist Debra in the organisation of these trips, and this year 6 nights were planned at Madi a Thavha.

HIV/AIDS in South Africa researched

The main topic of the Study Abroad program was HIV/AIDS, and before they came to Limpopo the students had already spent nearly three weeks in Cape Town visiting many projects, schools and clinics, discussing the HIV/AIDS issues around child- and women abuse, rape, orphaned children and retro-viral accessibility in South Africa. Rural Limpopo was next.

The 6 day study program was planned and put together by Marcelle, owner of Madi a Thavha. Being a Fair Trade establishment the enhancement of the community is part of their mission statement, and over the last 10 years Marcelle and Aart have managed to establish excellent working relationships with the surrounding Venda and Tsonga communities through its artists, teachers, doctors (modern and traditional), independent business owners, project managers and many more.

Breaking silence around HIV

The students were taken to local markets, a hospital for HIV orphans and outreach programs aimed at breaking the silence around HIV/AIDS such as Vhutshilo Mountain School and the Centre for Positive Care. They were introduced to Eco Products when they visited a factory that supports local women gathering Baobab fruits for the production of Baobab powder and oil, and encountered many local artists and traditional craftspeople, showing the students their beautiful pottery, famous wood carvings, musical instruments and proudly sharing their homes.

Traditional healers and artists

A great eye-opener was the village of Mashau where David Murathi lives. Mostly working from his homestead, he sculpts fishes and other beautiful functional art from indigenous woods. David’s dreams and ancestral spirits inspire him and each object he carves is a piece of art. In addition to being an artist, David is extremely knowledgeable about traditional healing and grows many indigenous and medicinal plants in his garden. David facilitated a rare visit to a certified traditional healer, who can read ‘the bones’.

Victim empowerment

On their last day the students visited the Thohoyandou Victim Empowerment Programme (TVEP). The mission of TVEP is “to generate an attitude of zero tolerance towards all forms of sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse and AIDS stigmatization in the Thulamela Municipality.” TVEP provides many programs and services to one regional and two district hospitals, 48 clinics, three health centres, seven police stations and satellites, and 500+ crèches, schools and tertiary education facilities, impacting an estimated 220,000 children, youth, and adults. The TVEP team’s work ethics is impressive – their selfless spirits and perseverance while dealing with hideous crimes, unimaginable trauma and daily death threats by jealous husbands and boyfriends, accused fathers and local kingpins dealing in human body parts, just to name a few.

Big difference between Cape and Limpopo

The differences between the Western Cape and rural Limpopo are vast. More people live according to traditional ways in Limpopo than anywhere else in South Africa. The superstitions and old beliefs are still very strong here, and this has its effect on how information on sexually transmitted diseases (including HIV/AIDS) is received and interpreted, how sex education is delivered by teachers and parents, and how people deal with sexual assault and abuse. The province still has a long way to go, and I could tell that the students were emotionally affected by what they saw and heard, and most definitely reflected on the differences with the Cape.

Madi a Thavha ‘home away from home’

Besides their delicious food and ‘home away from home’ feeling that any visitor of Madi a Thavha can’t help but experience, this incredible lodge stands tall in its approach toward its community, empowerment of their personnel and delivery of its services to anyone wanting to be educated on Africa’s people. Don’t miss this place.

I would like to personally and on behalf of the JMU professors and students thank Aart and Marcelle, Musa and Alfred, our fabulous guides, Guusje and Olivia (Dutch and Belgian interns), Percy and all the other people for your hard work and serving us in excellence. Keep on making a difference.

Written by Ingrid Geertsema of  Backroads Africa. Photos provided.

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