Tuesday, 9 September 2014

What an AFAO member learned Under the Baobab Tree

The ‘Under the Baobab Tree’ African Diaspora networking zone in the Global Village at AIDS 2014 provided an opportunity for people from the African and Black Diaspora and their colleagues to network, share knowledge, and relax.

The zone was hosted by the Centre for Culture, Ethnicity and Health (CEH) in partnership with the African and Black Diaspora Global Network on HIV and AIDS (ABDGN), and AFAO, with the guidance and support of AFAO’s African Reference Group.

Beth Hodge, Community Development and Advocacy Officer at the WA AIDS Council (WAAC), is a member of the African Reference group and was one of two WA representatives on the African Diaspora Networking Zone working group. We asked Beth to share her thoughts about her experiences under the baobab.


Beth Hodge (at right) with (from left): Mubnii Morshed
(Women's Health in Women's Hands - WHWH),
Alison Coelho (CEH) and
Marvelous Muchenje (WHWH).

Organising the zone


Some of the Baobab working group, myself included, entered the planning arena with no previous experience of a networking zone or any event as large as the Global Village at AIDS 2014. We only had parts of the puzzle, but that’s what was so great about the working group. We were able to draw from those who had experienced previous conferences and build from that.

Our vision was to create a vibrant space that mobilised the African and Black diaspora (ABD) communities and associated stakeholders with a range of knowledge, experience and resource exchange activities. We didn’t want everything to be formal presentations, so we spent time working out that balance.

For me, it was the first opportunity I’ve had to collaborate with international partners like Kwaku Adomako (ABDGN). As a young professional I found the planning experience incredibly positive. It was a real treat to be gifted with valuable insight from people who have many years in this field. I believe it was their expertise that resulted in the creation of a colourful and engaging zone that set us apart from all others.

Creating a sense of community


On the Thursday morning, a Somalian man came to the zone with his suitcase. He asked if he could leave it with us instead of carrying it around the entire day. I felt a great sense of pride in that moment because in the space of three days, we had established trust. It was that strong sense of community and family that had me and others constantly returning to the zone. The feeling of unity and mutual understanding encouraged community leaders to come, share, learn, and even to trust us with their belongings!

The zone created a supportive place for meaningful participation and network building. The conversations that followed presentations were a major highlight for me as the ABD communities were able to contribute their feedback and thoughts to current research, frameworks, and programs. I am certain that without establishing a comfortable and happy space, this priceless contribution would have been lost. Adding to that, I believe that the zone modelled the appropriate way to reach ABD communities: inclusive, creative, flexible and on-going engagement.

Wangari Tharao

My favourite sessions

The Diaspora Declaration

Kwaku Adomako and Wangari Tharao from the ABDGN shared their plans for a Diaspora Declaration, which they hope will galvanize global support for effective policy, advocacy, research, and service delivery responses to HIV/AIDS amongst ABD populations.

The network has collected and reviewed a multitude of evidence-based frameworks and resources that address various aspects of ABD communities as forced and willing migrants, as people living with HIV, and as ethnic minorities.  Kwaku and Wangari spoke about their work to unite the frameworks through the Diaspora Declaration.  This highlighted the relationships between ethnicity, migration and HIV, calling for:
  • integration of ABD communities in the countries they live in
  • incorporation of the historical perspective and recognising its impact on the HIV response
  • improvement of policies and programs as a component of effective service delivery; and
  • linking migration processes and frameworks.
This presentation was a great way to start the week. It highlighted ABD as a key vulnerable population and gave a global context for the presentations and discussions that followed.

Gender, Education and Power

This panel on the role of gender inequity in the HIV epidemic included several speakers who focussed on the vulnerability and empowerment of women and girls.

Lydia Mungherera, MD, the founder and CEO of Mama’s Club Uganda spoke about the organisation’s work addressing the specific psychosocial needs and reproductive health rights of rural mothers living with HIV.

Rather than present a formal paper, HIV advocate Ebony Johnson interviewed a young woman from Uganda who is living with HIV to grow our understanding of the importance of education for women. Ebony essentially highlighted that girls have the right to education and she argued strongly that many benefits and positive changes can be achieved through education: lift the burden of poverty with education, give women power and improve many outcomes including health and HIV status.

This was well summarised in a short video that Ebony presented about the ‘girl effect’. The girl effect campaign aims to leverage adolescent girls’ unique potential to end poverty for themselves, their families, their communities, their countries and the world. You can view the video here.

King Odor talked about his PhD research into the role women play in harmful widowhood practices where women are often (if not always) the perpetrators. This was a pivotal message for the afternoon discussion, as most of the discussion prior to this focussed on women as victims and pointing the finger at men.

As you can imagine, King’s presentation led to a lively discussion about gender roles and responsibilities in the context of education, health and HIV. Session particpant Phil Bilombele (CEO- Emo Community Service, WA, and a member of the zone working group) was able to keep the peace as he pointed out that ‘the fight is not against men or women. The fight is against HIV. We need to spend less time and effort pointing the finger at men (or women) so that we can focus on uniting together and putting an end to HIV’.

Value for our community partners


Drumming attracted people to the zone.
Yvonne Johnson, a Liberian community HIV peer educator with the Metropolitan Migrant Resource Centre (MMRC), who is also on AFAO’s African Reference group, was one of several of WAAC’s community partners to attend the conference. I work with Yvonne extensively, and I was pleased to find that she valued ‘Under the Baobab’ as much as I did.

‘I loved the African environment, like home and with lots of interactive learning too,’ she told me.
‘People were sharing ideas, sharing their stories, sharing their knowledge. Socialising, you know, talking and laughing. The drums made people stop by and just go have a dance. That brings us together’.

Yvonne’s experience at the zone has inspired her. It confirmed her duty to educate her people in order to reduce stigma and increase the uptake of treatment.

Currently, Yvonne and I are partnering to support the Sharing Stories project. This project aims to empower the community by using drama to tell the fictional ‘Story of Lola’. This story addresses stigma and discrimination and demonstrates the positive outcomes of a supportive community and treatment. It will show that HIV is not a death sentence. Life continues and dreams can still be achieved. For Yvonne, this drama strongly reflects her experience of the zone and the people she met there.

My experience presenting my work


The opportunity to present the WAAC and MMRC ‘Powerful women’ project under the baobab tree was a positive and constructive experience.

It was positive because I was able to represent the beautiful Liberian women and their wonderful work.  Community ownership of ‘Powerful women’ is the greatest kind of success.  I am filled with pride when they say ‘this is our work’ and ‘look at what have achieved’.

They dedicate their time on a weekly basis to the HIV movement and so it was a great joy to inform them that their faces would be seen and their messages heard at something as big as AIDS 2014.
It was constructive because once people heard about the project they contributed their thoughts and ideas. This feedback has added to my work and redefined how I will approach the next project. For example, one individual asked why there are no men featured in the clip. We all discussed this and I am happy to say there will be some males in our next film!


Stepping up the pace at the WA AIDS Council with the African Diaspora


With new knowledge and skills, I’ve gained a deeper understanding of best practices for ABD communities. An example of this is the up-coming post-conference forum for African community leaders. I am hoping to recreate the ‘Under the Boabab Tree’ vibe by inviting people like Phil Bilombele to share their learnings from AIDS 2014 with other community leaders.

Other current strategies include:
  • Recruitment and up-skilling potential African HIV peer educators
  • Peer interactions
  • New condom and website branding (built on community consultation through focus groups and a literature review)
  • African HIV Ambassador for Perth project
  • Training workshops
  • World AIDS Day event
  • Engaging with football tournaments
  • Community Educator’s HIV Calendar
  • One of many animated discussions in the zone.
  • Supporting the Sharing Stories project
This combination of community development and prevention methods will achieve our goals to:
  1. Improve community awareness, health literacy, knowledge, attitudes and behaviours around priority HIV, sexual health and risk reduction strategies (encourage  a healthy testing regime, encourage treatment uptake and normalise condom use);
  2. Develop the capacity of key community groups, networks and individuals to influence appropriate responses to HIV, sexual health and related health issues;
  3. Increase community support of a range of HIV, STI and BBV risk reduction and prevention strategies;
  4. Increase social influence and cultural norms supportive of reduced stigma around HIV and related issues;
  5. Increase community understanding regarding individual rights and health responsibilities
Having strengthened my collaboration with new and existing contacts like AFAO and received affirmation of current work and suggestions for improvement, I have gained motivation and renewed energy for the HIV movement. I grew so much in knowledge, especially learning from others who shared their journey and years of experience. They equipped me and others with what we need to step up the pace and work towards an end to HIV within ABD communities.


View more photos

View slides from the presentations

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