|Participants in ‘Walk the Nation’ carry posters proclaiming ‘I am a hero’ because they know their HIV status and remain faithful to one partner or practice abstinence.|
By Elizabeth Skorochod
MBABANE, Swaziland, 4 March 2008 – Early morning sunshine greeted more than 100 Swazis and four cabinet ministers who had gathered just inside the border gate separating the Kingdom of Swaziland from Mozambique.
They were about to take part in ‘Walk the Nation’ – a walk across the kingdom to raise HIV awareness, enhance education about the virus and combat the stigma associated with it. The walk began on 2 March and continues through 13 March.
Delisa Msibi, a single mother of two boys, was there because she has lost too many friends and relatives to AIDS.
Jacob Mahlobo, a monitor at orphan care points in his community, was there because he heard they would be teaching about HIV.
Bongiwe Khoza, wearing a red head scarf to cover her braids, was there because both of her parents died of AIDS and she wanted to show her concern.
Wanda Matsabula, dressed in the traditional print and animal skin of Swazi custom, was there for the chance to help educate people in distant communities about HIV.
The 12-day walk will cover 200 km and stretch from the Mhlumeni border with Mozambique to Sicunusa, the kingdom’s border with South Africa.
|Prime Minister Themba Dlamini, wearing an FC Barcelona jersey with the UNICEF logo, poses with Boy Scouts and Girl Guides taking part in the walk across Swaziland.|
Focus on changing attitudes
Despite being one of African’s smallest nations, Swaziland has the highest prevalence of HIV in the world. Approximately one-third of its people are living with the virus, and out of the country’s population of 1 million, some 10 per cent are orphans and vulnerable children.
The idea for Walk the Nation began with volunteers from the US Peace Corps and was taken up and supported by UNICEF and the National Emergency Response Council. The organizers hope to reach 100,000 rural residents of the kingdom as the walk snakes its way through communities along the way.
The walkers are focusing on Swaziland’s rural areas to change attitudes and behaviour relating to HIV, and to connect often isolated community events into a national initiative.
Walk the Nation is open to Swazis of all ages, but it has attracted mainly youth from each region of the country. The HIV prevalence rate has declined in all age groups under 30 in the past few years; the walk aims to build on this trend and encourage even greater numbers of young people to take charge of their lives and prevent the spread of HIV.
‘I will keep fighting’
Swaziland’s Prime Minister, Themba Dlamini, launched the walk by lighting the torch that would lead the way.
“We are making history here today,” said Mr. Dlamini. “We are mobilizing communities to enhance awareness of HIV and fight this destruction in our nation. When we have beaten this disease, we can look back and say that we took part in this, that we made history.”
Each dy of the walk is being devoted to educating walkers and community members on HIV issues. Stops along the route are being used to promote HIV prevention and counselling, as well as voluntary HIV testing. UNICEF will sponsor a special Youth Day to mark the half-way point of the walk.
This initiative has galvanized support from sectors across Swazi society, including community leaders and members, government ministries, UN agencies and more than 20 non-governmental organizations.
“I want HIV gone from our nation today, this afternoon,” said Walk the Nation participant Bongiwe Khoza. “But I know that’s not possible. So instead, I will keep fighting and walking to try to make sure that no one else has to suffer.”