A study conducted in 2012 by the Central Intelligence Agency found that there are an estimated 207,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in Rwanda.*   While the Rwandan government takes great strides to curb the prevalence of this disease, without access to education and testing, the eradication of HIV/AIDS in Rwanda is nearly impossible. While these statistics remain daunting, Agahozo-Shalom confronts the challenge head-on through the continued education of our students on the causes, susceptibility, and preventative measures necessary to contain HIV/AIDS. Monday, March 10th marked the end of ASYV’s annual HIV/AIDS Awareness Event that, organized each year by Agahozo-Shalom’s Health and Wellness Center.  

Hassina Umutesi, the Coordinator of Health and Wellness at Agahozo-Shalom, organized this event this year. She explained that the topic of HIV/AIDS must be approached very sensitively. “Some of these kids have experienced AIDS in the death of their parents or siblings. Many kids were born from parents who were HIV positive and thus fear they will also be positive. Until this point, they do not know and there is a lot of fear surrounding testing. They are not aware because in their Village they do not have access to treatment or testing and no guardian is concerned about this. It is our initiative to make sure each child is safe and informed.” ASYV’s two full-time nurses and a part-time doctor assisted with the week's events. Aside from the annual event, there are also two full-time psychosocial workers who live in the Village and work with students to promote mental stability through individual counseling. 

There werethree stages that served as the foundation for this year's HIV/AIDS event. The first was an awareness campaign where students learn about what HIV/AIDS is and how it is transmitted. Health and Wellness Center Staff traveled to each family home in the Village (32 in all!) to give a detailed explanation of HIV/AIDS and to answer any questions the students may have. The information sessions were followed by a Village-wide performance held at the amphitheater that welcomed students, staff, and health professionals to speak on the importance of HIV testing, prevention, and treatment. 

Pre-counseling was followed by a blood test. Each student at ASYV is tested once per year. During this time, students are encouraged to donate blood, which is distributed to partnered health centers in the surrounding area. 

The third stage of the Event was certainly the most challenging, as it provides post-counseling for those who have tested positive. For these students, it is of crucial importance to treat their minds as well as their bodies. HIV is not an excuse to give up and ASYV does its best to ensure that our students are not swallowed by their diagnosis. Health Center Staff teach students how to receive their medication from facilities outside of the Village, as it is important for students to understand how to obtain medication after they graduate or when they leave the Village for term breaks. 

The medical support of the Health Center does not cease after the results are announced. Therapeutic support is offered 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, without exception. Health Center staff work to generate specific treatment plans according to the needs and wishes of the individual. The Village completely respects the privacy of each student. They are not required to inform anyone of their diagnosis. However, students are strongly encouraged to continue counseling and to inform their Mama in the Village. In a continued display of mutual trust, the Health Center has devised a strategy that further emphasizes the anonymity of those infected. Hassina explains, “When we invite students to be tested the following year, those who have tested positive come as well. We have a secret sign between those who are tested positive and the Health Center Staff so that we know who is HIV positive. We want to protect the student from unnecessary stigmatization. This is a small community. We do not tell the students how many kids at the Village are HIV positive - there is no reason they need to know. We have both positive and negative persons living within our community, just like Rwanda.”  

Through this event, ASYV continues its promise to educate our students beyond the walls of their classrooms and the gates of ASYV. We are incredibility grateful for the strength and persistence of the Health and Wellness Center Staff and their enduring care of the bodies and minds of our students! 

Submitted by Sasha Friedman, 2014 Village Fellow