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Soldier in war against disease plaguing Africa is studying here

Saturday, December 01, 2001

By Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

More than a decade ago, Theresa Kaijage finished her master's degree in social work at Washington University in St. Louis. Her studies behind her, she was headed back to Tanzania, her home in East Africa, to settle into a life of teaching.

Theresa Kaijage, a student from Tanzania, stands in front of Parran Hall at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health in Oakland. She is studying social work and health there and has designed a program to combat the spread of AIDS in her homeland. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

But in Kaijage's absence, a ferocious stranger had come to town, one that would consume chunks of her time and energy -- but not her spirit. It was 1985 and she was doing battle with the AIDS crisis.

"People didn't know what to do," said Kaijage. "The medical community was paralyzed. People just didn't have the skills to deal with AIDS."

Even before the virus claimed the life of a woman who was part of her extended family, Kaijage decided to strike back.

In 1989, she founded the grassroots group Wamata, a Swahili-language acronym for "people in the fight against AIDS." At the time, it was Tanzania's only advocacy and counseling program for people with the virus. Kaijage was so involved she became known as Dar es Salaam's chief counselor and friend of HIV carriers.

As countries across the globe recognize World AIDS Day today, organizations such as Kaijage's and the work it is doing come into sharper focus.

For Wamata, which reaches out to widows and widowers, former lovers, orphans and parents of AIDS victims, there have been many successes.

Early on, the organization fought against the loneliness and stigma that often mark the lives of AIDS victims. It did so without an official gathering place and at meetings that were sometimes held under shade trees.

Today, Wamata has a nine-person staff based at headquarters in Dar es Salaam, scores of volunteers, and branches in villages and towns throughout Tanzania. The organization has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from international assistance groups. At the United Nations this summer, the group was hailed as a nongovernmental model of how other developing nations should fight against AIDS.

Kaijage, 55, now attends the University of Pittsburgh, where's she's earning a doctorate in social work and a master's in public health.

She is married and has two sons and a daughter and an extended family of nieces and nephews.

When her education is completed here, Kaijage will head home.

Though her agency has broken down the stigma of AIDS, and counseled and supported thousands, there is still work to be done.

AIDS is ravaging Africa. There are 34 million people in the world infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and 70 percent of them live in sub-Saharan Africa.

In Tanzania, the AIDS epidemic has primarily affected urban areas, where nearly 10 percent of the adult population -- more than 1.5 million people -- is HIV positive.

AIDS in Tanzania is spread mostly through heterosexual sex, especially prostitution.

Its transmission also flows from a lethal convergence of poverty, ignorance and silence that can prevent the people of Tanzania from protecting themselves and others from the HIV infection.

People would simply prefer to ignore it, said Kaijage. "HIV is private, but AIDS brings it to the surface."

The hope Wamata provides comes in many forms, but right now the group is urging pharmaceutical companies to make drug treatments more affordable for African peoples and seeking funding to keep the orphans it cares for in public schools, which levy a small tuition to help with book and other costs.

"There is hope," said Kaijage. "People are inspired. Even if they don't have medicine, people die fighting. They live every moment as a special moment."

For more information, or to make a donation, you can email Theresa Kaijage at WAMATA@ud.co.tz

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