The following testimonial was written by BBC Tanzania Bureau Chief Vicky Ntetema, a leading journalist and a friend of Veneranda Sanga.
For an earlier report on Veneranda, see http://www.highlandshope.com/2005/12/11/veneranda-a-16-year-olds-life-history-experiences-difficulties-and-dreams-2
Veneranda is not another statistic!
28th February may be last day of the second month of year 2009! But regrettably, it is also the last day of Veneranda Sanga's life, who since her childhood had been battling with the virus that causes AIDS. She passed away today at 1930 hrs in Ikonda Roman Catholic Mission Hospital while undergoing further tests to ascertain the illness that had weakened the once very energetic teenager. May her soul rest in eternal peace! Amen.
It is hard to believe that I will not see that happy, tough, caring and ever smiling girl whose short life had touched many in Bulongwa, the village where she lived and Makete District in general, in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania. The area is one of the districts in the country with the highest rate of HIV prevalence at 20% and the highest number of orphans (at 20,000 out of a population of 105,000) whose parents died of the scourge.
Veneranda did not behave like an orphan at all! She was always happy and ready to help other orphans and even adults who she thought needed assistance more than her. When in 2005 I met her for the first time at the Bulongwa Hospital orphanage, I could not believe that she was one of children who had HIV. She was bubbly and full of vigour and laughter and she would go round the dormitories reminding other children to take their medicine.
She carried and looked after the youngest orphans as if she were an adult. She did some chores in the premises without being asked to do so. She was the first to wake up and the last child to go to bed ensuring that everyone was safely tucked in bed. That is the Veneranda I know!
It is very difficult for me to speak of her in the past tense.
The little girl from Iniho village who taught many in the area and further afield patience, resilience, tolerance and showed love and care for every human being is NO MORE!
As the youngest PIUMA member (a Bulongwa-based self help group of People Living With HIV and AIDS), she joined the rest of the group on the grounds of Tandala Teachers' College to ask Honourable Jakaya Kikwete who was campaigning for presidency to ensure that they get proper treatment and care. He promised to bring about changes and better life for every Tanzanian. Mr. Kikwete put on Veneranda a reassuring hand in a special photograph showing that if he came to power, he will make sure that PLWHAs get access to VCTs, CTCs and all medical services needed to treat them.
He promised to work with everybody from in and out of Tanzania to save the lives of his people because there is NO NEED TO DIE just because one has contracted the AIDS virus. That was on 2nd December 2005 a day after a German company PARTEC donated to PIUMA a machine that has the ability to determine CD4 percentage of children (an essential therapeutic test); a day after PIUMA was officially inaugurated by Dr. Kapinga the then Makete District Commissioner. He also promised to work with PLWHAs to ensure that people like Veneranda do not need to die because of lack of treatment and care! 12 days later the country went to the polls to elect their lawmakers and president. On December 17th 2005 Mr. Kikwete was declared the winner of the presidential race by more than 80%. His party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) also won by more than 80% of the votes. On December 21st 2005 the CCM presidential candidate became the youngest and 4th Head of State of Tanzania.
Veneranda and all the PLWHAs in Bulongwa had their eyes directed to Dar es Salaam's State House, hoping that their health conditions would improve. A year later, after more than 270 million Tanzanian shillings from Global Funds was embezzled from the district coffers and the culprits went unpunished, and after more than 270 million Tanzanian shillings was stolen from Bulongwa Lutheran Hospital (BLH) and again five members of the management team went scot-free the HIV and AIDS clinic funded by Austrian EAWM was closed and its machines, including liver function machine were confiscated, its staff harassed and patients denied the right to be treated. Why? Simply because Veneranda and her PLWHA brothers and sisters in the war against HIV and AIDS and for justice and human rights had registered their protest against the thieves and corrupt system! Simply because they demanded accountability from the powers-that be!
PLWHAs like Veneranda in Bulongwa had nowhere to go for treatment and although they had ARVs, adherence and regular check-ups were problematic. BLH got another machine which does not determine the CD4 percentage for children. The clinic also did not have liver-function machines. So Veneranda and other PLWHAs were not properly treated. The machine does not work and so HIV blood tests had to be sent to Ikonda or Makete and TANWAT hospitals miles away. BLH does not provide transport for its patients because there is no ambulance. When bidding the foreign medical staff goodbye after the 12th April 2006 lockout, Veneranda told one of her doctors, "Please do not go, because without you I will die!" The doctor reassured her that she will not die because of HIV if she got proper treatment and care! Did she predict her death? Was she being realistic knowing that the management and the government of Tanzania and politicians would not deliver their promises?
More than 45 people with the virus died in a period of one year and more continue to die in Bulongwa because of lack of proper treatment and care following the closure and expulsion from the hospital of qualified medical staff including foreign medical volunteers. Where are the promises that President Jakaya Kikwete made to Veneranda and other PLHWAs? What will he and the ruling party CCM tell Makete PLWHAs when election campaigns start all over again before the 2010 general elections?
Mr. President and First Lady Salma Kikwete on 14th July 2007 set a good example in the war against HIV and AIDS by being the first to be counseled and tested. It was the beginning of the campaign titled, "Tanzania without HIV and AIDS is Possible!" The Minister for Health and Social Welfare, Prof. David Homeli Mwakyusa told Tanzanians on February 27th 2008 that the response to voluntary testing is now picking up as a result of the campaign of the same launched by the president. That was less than 24 hours before she lost the battle to the unnecessary death. From her deep sleep, Veneranda and many who have lost their lives not to the virus but because of corruption, lack of proper treatment and care would surely ask you "what is the point of testing and knowing your HIV status if in the remote areas of Tanzania you cannot get the right medication?" How will they be better treated if they do not know their CD4 Count? Veneranda was born with the infection and lived her short life with ARVs and there was no reason for her to die today!
Where is the Makete CCM Member of parliament Hon. Dr. Binilith Mahenge who promised to improve the health services among many other things for his voters? Where is Honorable Lediana Mafuru Mng'ong'o, Member of Parliament who hails from Makete and who is a member of a parliamentary committee dealing with HIV and AIDS issues. Where is the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania - ELCT and the South-Central Diocese - SCD of Makete which claim to care for the poor, the needy, the sick and the dying? Do they know the qualifications of the medical team they have employed at the Bulongwa Lutheran Hospital ?
When Veneranda fell ill last year while in her second year at a secondary school, she was taken to Bulongwa Lutheran Hospital . Her condition did not improve. Attempts to save her life took her on a hired vehicle to Ikonda Hospital . And now that sweet, ever smiling and caring young girl is gone!
Veneranda is one of many people living with HIV and AIDS in Tanzania who did not have to die! How many more Venerandas should continue to suffer and die as a result of corruption and lack of political will to save lives of PLWHAs? When will the Ministry of Health realize that some HIV and AIDS kits are not suitable for rural Tanzania and also are not children-friendly? When will the authority realize that Voluntary Counseling and Testing is meaningless if not followed up by proper treatment and care including regular check-ups of CD4 percentage?
The authorities have failed Veneranda and many others who were not supposed to die!
The passing on of Veneranda should be a wakeup call for the Ministry of Health and the government in general to improve their HIV and AIDS clinics in rural Tanzania equipping them with machines that work and competent and qualified medical teams. Lost in her deep sleep, Veneranda's message to President Jakaya Kikwete, his government and parliamentarians is "Tanzania without HIV and AIDS is IMPOSSIBLE if the above are not implemented!"
Do not allow Veneranda become another statistics, Mr. President! Remember the reassuring hand on her shoulder in December 2005 during CCM election campaign!
Veneranda, you have not died in vain! Rest in eternal peace our little friend, the fighter, the carer, the guardian angel and the symbol of hope! Amen.