Traveling to Tanzania

This summer, Minal Ahson, a junior double-majoring in microbiology and religious studies, volunteered with Cross Cultural Solutions, an international grassroots volunteer placement organization. Ahson conducted her volunteer work in Tengeru, a small village outside of Arusha, Tanzania. She was awarded the Patrick Stewart 2003 Human Rights Scholarship from Amnesty International for her project to research the HIV/AIDS and healthcare situations in the village. This is the third installment of a four-part series, in which Ahson describes her experiences and volunteer work in Tanzania.

Journal Entry #3
Observing the HIV/AIDS situation in Tengeru was interesting. Everything is very hush-hush. Things are not spoken about. We had two nurses from a district hospital come visit us, and they told us about the situation in the area. They did not have very good statistics, but they were able to tell us that about one in four people had HIV or AIDS in the region. They were also estimating about a 50 percent unreported rate. That means about half the people living in that area had HIV/AIDS!
There is also a huge stigma associated with HIV in the region. HIV/AIDS in Tanzania has been referred to as kaukwa [“stumbling” in Swahili], Titanic and “accident.” It is a shame to die from HIV/AIDS. Often patients are referred to as “immunocompromised” by doctors. Even at the orphanage I went to, no one was really sure if the children had HIV/AIDS. Even if it were known, there isn’t much that can be done for them, since antiretrovirals are very expensive there.

Mama Simba told me a story about a wife who contracted HIV from her husband. The husband died, and the wife remarried and then had a child, even though she had been counseled against it. She told Mama Simba that she did not want to live alone. Counseling is a new form of prevention that has been started. Sex is something that is kept behind closed doors. Sometimes the information is passed on to girls from a kungwi, a lady who passes on the rituals and traditions to the next generation during initiation rites, but many adolescents do not understand how they can protect themselves. They are one of the most at-risk groups. Other at-risk groups include bar owners/attendants, truck drivers, miners and soldiers.

Quick Fact: About one in four people had HIV or AIDS in the region.

It’s a part of the culture for families to take care of ill family members, so oftentimes they would get infected just by being a caretaker. It was extremely sad to talk to the locals. Everyone knew someone who had died or was dying of AIDS. While I was there, I was able to visit a lady who lived down the road. She had been bedridden for two years and finally felt well enough to get up. Her son, who was probably my age, was financially supporting his mother, his sister and himself. Although I could not communicate with her because of the language barrier, I held her hand.

I also visited a hospital, where I was able to see the lack of resources and technology. As I stepped into the dimly lit room, the patient lying on the bed turned his head slightly to acknowledge my presence. The doctor examined the patient’s eyes. It was noted that the patient’s right pupil was dilated – the same side of the head that the patient had fallen on three weeks earlier. Within minutes, the doctor was able to piece together the patient’s history and outward biological signs to determine that the patient was suffering from bleeding of the brain. CAT scans are a luxury for hospitals there, so doctors must be adept at reading and understanding a patient’s every signal. A simple procedure could have easily taken care of a brain bleed in the United States, but in Africa, where resources are few and money is even scarcer, the problem could have led to death. I asked him what normally happened to patients that had the same condition, and he replied, “There’s not enough money for their children to eat at home, so there is little chance for them to even come close to the resources they need to be treated properly. So they normally die.”

Minal Ahson can be contacted at