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Mission to Manguzi called to Africa, we found ourselves.

Manguzi (so called because of its many mango trees) is a rural community located in the upper northeastern region of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. It is a town booming with energy and invigorating to the senses. Its streets are lined with vibrant markets, vending everything from fish to pineapples to fried dough. The air is filled with the sounds of school children singing in perfect harmony and with the sputtering of worn, rusted-out 4x4 vehicles.

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ITS ROADS ARE EITHER SANDY, potholed, or both. Gogos (grandmothers) and children alike carry unbelievable loads on their heads, from 25-liter drums of water to sacks of vegetables. Young women wear multicolored head wraps and saunter in lively skirts. The sun is always shining, so people carry bright umbrellas to block its boiling rays and face cloths to wipe the sweat from their brows. Manguzi, South Africa, is a magical, chaotic, vibrant place, and it currently is the place I call home.

In May 2006, my then-boyfriend, Jim, and I graduated from college with plans to volunteer with AmeriCorps for one year, and then attend medical school. I began my service year with City Year in Washington D.C., working as an HIV/AIDS educator in inner-city high schools. That same month, Jim moved to South Africa hoping to do mission work, but with no set plan. Through a unique series of events, he moved in with a Zulu family and started volunteering at a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) offering AIDS education called Tholulwazi Uzivikele (which means "Get Information to Protect Yourself" in Zulu). On opposite sides of the world, we both were working in the HIV/AIDS non-profit sector, both becoming passionate about the issue. Our phone calls, although brief because of outrageous international calling rates, were emotional. We found ourselves questioning the world's response to the epidemic, the complexities of preventing infection, and our roles in fighting HIV/AIDS.

We continued working hard in our different corners of the world until the spring of 2007, when Jim received surprising news. The Tholulwazi program coordinator had to move unexpectedly, and the Tholulwazi Board of Directors offered the post to Jim and me for one year. Although our friends and families were not completely convinced that we should accept, we both truly felt called to serve in South Africa. Finally, we decided to defer one year from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine and take the post. Jim returned to the United States in May 2007, and we were married in July. Five days after our honeymoon ended, we moved halfway across the world to Manguzi.

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Having a new husband, living in a new place, working at a new job, and making all new friends was a challenge, but it also was lots of fun. Jim and I moved into a round cement house, or rondavel, within a larger compound of houses in the local community. We felt blessed to live in such a nice house, with electricity and an air conditioner; however, the sporadic availability of running water was a bit of an adjustment. Our unreliable car and far-from-fluent Zulu language skills also gave us some anxiety. However, our trials were incredibly minimal when compared to those of the community we came to serve.

Although the life and energy of Manguzi are undeniable, its people suffer from unbelievably high rates of HIV infection, extreme poverty, and desperate unemployment. At the end of 2005, South Africa had 5.5 million people living with HIV and 1,000 died each day. Antiretroviral (ARV) treatment became available only in 2004--years later than in most countries--and of those people who need it, only an estimated 33 percent actually can access treatment.

Locally, Manguzi has an HIV infection rate of 28 percent among pregnant women, and officials estimate 85 percent of its population has access to treatment. I worked as a student in Manguzi Hospital, so to me these are not just numbers. I sat in on more than one patient appointment where a gogo, her daughter, and her granddaughter all were there to pick up their ARVs. I have seen HIV-positive infants abandoned in the pediatric ward, their mothers dead from AIDS, their fathers nowhere to be found. I have pictures of these patients in my head that can never be erased; yet the memories stir something deep inside of me, calling me to serve as a doctor to the poor.

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The repercussions of this epidemic are monumental; one of the most tragic is the number of orphans it leaves in its wake. Currently, South Africa is home to 1.2 million AIDS orphans, and that number continues to rise. In Manguzi, Tholulwazi serves a population of 3,000 AIDS orphans, many of whom I've come to know. We run several programs for these children, from distributing school uniforms to delivering food parcels. My favorite program is the Memory Box Children's Camp.

Taking place over two weekends, 25 orphaned children each receive a wooden memory box in which they can store pictures or items that remind them of their deceased parents. They decorate the boxes, and also use them to store all their artwork created during the camp. In addition, they get to sleep over in the Centre, eat great food, watch movies, and bond with other kids living through similar situations. These children all have experienced tremendous sadness and confusion in their lives; it is a priceless gift to give them two weekends of pure fun.

In addition to orphan care, Tholulwazi also runs a home-based care program in which 150 volunteers visit the chronically ill in their communities. The team is made up mostly of women we've trained, who travel by foot to the homesteads of the sick and dying, exposing themselves regularly to disease and harsh family situations. They receive no compensation for their efforts, yet they minister constantly, all because they have the heart to help.

Finally, our young adult care program reaches out to Manguzi's young people, with the goals of preventing HIV infection and motivating youth to make a difference in their lives and the lives of others. To do this, Tholulwazi runs Christian-based life skills courses and acts out an HIV drama at local high schools. To date, we have hosted three different groups of life skills courses, which have been extremely popular. The passion and interest I've seen in the eyes of young people enrolled in these courses are incredible, and for many the course has changed their life. One student testified to the class that, because of the course, he gave up drinking alcohol. The following weekend his friends were out drinking and driving, and were in a serious car crash. He said, "If it weren't for these life skills courses, I'd be dead." These programs encourage young people to create a vision for their lives; a future they can reach with action and discipline. In a community that suffers so immensely from HIV and poverty, Tholulwazi's life skills courses offer young people hope.

Like everything else in Africa, overseeing these programs has been both a blessing and a challenge. Through our work, Jim and I have gained leadership skills, cultural knowledge, a lot of patience, and perhaps a few gray hairs. We have submitted grant proposals, completed funding reports, and hosted donor visits. We have managed a budget of nearly $300,000 U.S. Dollars and led a staff of 21 people. Being so young and gaining this experience has been an amazing opportunity. Fortunately, we have had incredible mentors and friends to help us overcome obstacles and make big decisions.

However, Jim and I not only worked hard on this mission, we played hard, too. We spent several weekends at the beautiful beaches of the Indian Ocean, reading and swimming. We saw elephants and rhinos in their natural habitats at game parks, and paddled past hippos in our local lake system. During the Christmas holiday, we took a road trip from Manguzi to Cape Town and saw the entire eastern coastline of South Africa. The scenery was diverse and rich, and Cape Town was breathtaking. Our adventures also have included camping trips with friends, cycling trips to Waterfall Cave, and drives to Mozambique.

Over the past seven months, we have fallen in love with Manguzi. We love the people, the chaos, the music, and the complete disregard for time. We love the backs of pickup trucks overflowing with people, and the local dish of rice, curried chicken, butternut and beetroot. Because of our love for this environment and these people, we are even more inspired to earn our medical degrees and return to a rural, developing corner of the world to serve the poor.

As our time draws to a close here, I am anxious about leaving. Manguzi has become my home, and I am going to miss it immensely. They say 'you can never dust the sands of Africa from your feet'; I don't think I ever will.

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BRICE NIELSEN, a 2006 North Carolina State University graduate and 2007 Phi Kappa Phi Hohenstein Fellow for the Southeastern Region, was inducted into Phi Kappa Phi in 2005. She and her husband Jim have served for the past year as program coordinators for an AIDS education organization in Manguzi, South Africa. She plans to attend medical school on her return to the United States.

* For more updates on the adventures of Brice and Jim, please visit our blog at www.briceandjim.blogspot.com

* For more information on Tholulwazi Uzivikele, please visit our Web site at www.tuproject.org

* For more information on HIV in South Africa or around the world, please visit www.avert.org

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Author:Nielsen, Brice
Publication:Phi Kappa Phi Forum
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Jun 22, 2008
Words:1621
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