Mtwara and Lindi: The loudspeakers on top the USAID-funded Universal HIV and AIDS Initiative-Counselling and Testing (UHAI-CT) Programme road show van cranked to life.
The music reverberated off the walls of the coral houses in the historical town of Mikindani-Mtwara, dampening the noise from the droning generator powering the PA system.
Alex Kimwaga, 24, event presenter with the UHAI-CT team was ready.
He grabbed his microphone and dispatched the trademark slogan “Tanzania at Fifty!”
“We Dared, We Succeeded, We are Forging Ahead Don’t wait, come out in numbers and get to know your HIV status, today!,” Alex roared over the microphone.
With that the road-show began, and for the next two hours Alex and his mobile PA team pumped energy, mobilising people at bus stops, the marketplace, youth camps, making a 10-15 minute edutainment stop at each location.
The message - to inform Mikindani residents of the free HIV counselling and testing services provided by UHAI-CT Programme alongside Uhuru Torch rally combined the official theme for this year’s Tanzania commemoration of 50 years of Independence celebrations and a key message for the rally “Stop AIDS, Keep the Promise: Universal Access and Human Rights”
When Tanganyika (Mainland Tanzania) attained her independence in 1961, a beacon of hope -- The Uhuru Torch -- was placed on the highest point in Africa Mt Kilimanjaro to “shine beyond the new country borders giving hope where there was despair, love where there was hate, and dignity where there was before only humiliation”.
For half a century, the government of Tanzania has organised the “big kerosene candle” rallies, criss-crossing the country each year with messages revolving around the original purpose to raise hope.
Today the Uhuru Torch is making an overnight stop at Mtwara-Mikindani Municipality, bringing hope to folks young and old who have packed the CCM grounds for the nightlong party.
This year, with support from the American People, the UHAI-CT Programme, led by Jhpiego an affiliate of Johns Hopkins University and partners Tanzania Marketing Corporation and Africare -- have joined hands with the government of Tanzania in creating demand and providing free HIV counselling and testing services to Uhuru Torch rallies.
At Mikindani, UHAI-CT has put up voluntary counselling and testing tents and set aside space with chairs for group counselling. When services began in the evening, people were filing up in broad daylight for a chance to know their HIV status, in the midst of a huge crowd gathered for the Uhuru Torch party where traditional dances, music and patriotic speeches were in full swing.
Among them was Muhsin Ignas Komba, ward councillor for the local government and chairman for the Mtwara-Mikindani municipality social services committee.
“Some [people] are hesitating to come here. I have decided to come forward in broad daylight and get tested [for HIV]. As an elected official, I have to lead by example and I am hoping many more will follow”, said Komba.
And people have been pouring in numbers. According to the UHAI-CT Uhuru Torch counselling and testing campaign team leader, Johari Maganga, over 5000 clients have known their HIV status since the rallies began in mid-October.
The target is to test over 8,000 clients and reach as many as 50,000 people in 19 of the 26 regions of Mainland Tanzania with HIV voluntary counselling and testing messages by the time Uhuru Torch rallies came to an end on November 30.
“We thank the government and Uhuru Torch coordinators for the collaboration received. We are extremely impressed by the massive turnout in all the regions we have served.
It gives us feedback that people are responding well to messages and, they want to test for HIV”, said Johari. “But sometimes we are overwhelmed, especially during the night when more people, especially the youth, come”
Mtwara Regional Commissioner Lt Col (retired) Joseph Simbakalia had an important message to his people “The programme [UHAI-CT] is doing good work. Unlike in our times, things have changed these days and we are living in dangerous times so I urge people to change behaviours. A huge gathering like this provides an opportunity to reach many people at high risk and remind them to take necessary HIV preventive measures, starting with knowing their status“
“I call upon the programme to also look into ways to support cultural gatherings, with messaging on HIV, so that traditional activities such as initiations are also helping in the fight [against HIV]”, the Regional Commissioner added.
At Nyangao town in Lindi region, Ursula Saidi, 61, from Mtakuja Mbili village was among many people who didn’t allow the heavy downpour at the village grounds where the Uhuru Torch rally was being held to wash away their determination to get tested.
Recently, Ursula divorced her husband with whom they have two daughters and three grandchildren. But this was not the only reason she was queuing up to take the HIV test. “You think I am old. I am still very much active”, said Ursula while laughing.
A few moments later, a couple turned up at another UHAI-CT tent in Nyangao. Elizabeth Malibiche and Saidi Saidi Kambwili have decided to take the test together.
Before meeting Saidi, Elizabeth was married and divorced with her then husband last year.
Elizabeth is a housewife while Saidi works at the Nyangao Village Community Bank
“We spoke about this and we thought it will be good if we came together. We trust each other but we also want to know our HIV status” said Kambwili.
“We heard messages from the announcements and said why not, let’s go take the test, together”.
As the couple was being attended inside one of the tents, two UHAI-CT counsellors were providing group counselling to men and women as well as boys and girls who have taken up all the sits available, others were standing, listening attentively.