I've heard some people say we shouldn't give aid to Africa because it's not working. But I don't believe in falling for hype, I'd rather check things out for myself. So when Comic Relief asked me to make a film for my online TV channel SBTV about Waterberg Welfare Society, an HIV/AIDS charity working in rural South Africa, I was up for it.
We were met at the airport in Johannesburg by July, a project worker from WWS who I soon discovered was a seriously inspirational guy. As we made the three hour car journey to the rural town of Vaalwater he told me how one in five people who live locally are infected with the HIV virus. A married dad of two, July almost died from AIDS before receiving lifesaving treatment from WWS, and he now uses his own experiences to support others in his community.
Part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, Vaalwater is surrounded by farmland and big game safari reserves, and it was crazy to see monkeys, zebras and giraffes as we drove along. But despite the beautiful surroundings I heard how things have been harsh for many people. A decade ago there were funerals every weekend and a generation was being wiped out. July and many others were getting horribly sick but people didn't know why.
Desperate to save their loved ones, families turned to traditional faith healers, running up huge debts paying for treatment that not only didn't work but was often painful and dangerous. HIV testing wasn't available, and for the few who did know they were infected, there was no support or treatment. People were dying and things seemed beyond hope.
Thankfully all that has changed due to the amazing work being carried out by the WWS using cash raised through Red Nose Day, and throughout our three days in Vaalwater we heard many people talk about how their lives have been saved.
One such woman was Elizabeth, a 35 year old mother, who told us how she was almost dead when WWS first brought her to their healthcare centre four years ago. Bursting into tears she recalled once being too weak to walk, but she's a strong lady and didn't give up, and today she's well thanks to the correct HIV treatment. She also encouraged her two sisters to get tested. Both are HIV positive but they too have stayed healthy because of WWS.
Then we met Phinius, 24, who was just eleven years old when he began caring for his sick mother. He stopped going to school so he could cook, clean and wash her, but without the right medication he was powerless to save her life. Not long after she passed away, Phinius's aunt became ill and when she also died from AIDS it fell to Phinius to look after her three orphaned children.
Luckily they've been able to rely on the WWS's 'Boys to Men' project, which provides counselling, education and arts activities for young people who have been affected or infected by HIV. Hanging out with Phinius and his mates you could see the happiness they bring to each another, and even though they've all been through tough times they were singing and dancing. Their community spirit was strong, and now thinking about how cheerful they were despite all their stresses it makes me wonder, damn, what have I got to be so grumpy about?
One of the best things we checked out was WWS's gig rig, a lorry that has been converted into a mobile sound system and stage. Blasting out fresh South African hip hop mixed live on stage with an MC on the mic, the rig travels around the community raising awareness about HIV/AIDS. I've always known you've got to practise safe sex but I learnt how important it is to get tested and know your HIV status. And testing positive doesn't have to be a death sentence. With the right kind of support, people can learn how to take care of themselves and get the medicine they need for a long, healthy life. You just have to know your stuff.
And so to people who say that that we shouldn't give aid to Africa because it's not helping, I'd say you're chatting rubbish. I've seen with my own eyes that you're wrong, aid does work. It's real and it's making a massive difference. Ten years ago people in Vaalwater were dying from AIDS, today they're living with HIV. Just ask July, Elizabeth and Phinius, they'll tell you...
For the past 25 years the money raised through Red Nose Day has been changing the lives of 50 million people in the UK and Africa. The next Red Nose Day is Friday 15th March. Let's Keep Up the #goodwork. Find out how at rednoseday.com
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