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HIV Testing Campaign Taps into Tanzania's Uhuru Torch Celebrations

Last month, I was part of a team of nine people that launched the 2nd annual HIV testing campaign in the Shinyanga region in Tanzania during the national Uhuru Torch celebrations. I was really happy to see that more than 5,000 people were tested during the campaign; 65% of them were men, who are often hard to reach with HIV testing services. This year, we tested 22% more people than last year. Many young people came out to learn their status, which seemed appropriate given the Uhuru Torch celebration’s historical links to Tanzania’s youth movement.

Originally lit in 1961 by Tanzania’s first president, the late Mwalimu Julius K. Nyerere, the Uhuru Torch was placed at the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro as a symbol of hope for the independence of other African nations still under colonial rule. In the 1970s, the ruling party’s youth wing was charged with relaying the torch—known by the locals as “Mwenge wa Uhuru” in Swahili—all over the country. Later, this responsibility was taken up by the ministry in charge of youth affairs, and every year young people are selected from regions across the country to relay the torch all over Tanzania.

Starting last year, IntraHealth International partnered with local and regional health officials to launch an HIV testing campaign during the local Uhuru Torch event in the Shinyanga region. In evenings during the community celebrations, our team screened educational films about sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, and gave educational talks on HIV prevention. We also handed out condoms and information on the correct way to use a condom. A van with speakers went through the streets, encouraging people to get tested. Local leaders also plugged the campaign in public addresses and during cultural events such as dances or performances associated with the torch celebrations. We set up mobile tents, and we offered HIV counseling and rapid testing free of charge.  As the torch moved from district to district, we followed with our campaign. It was really hard work, but I think we touched a lot of lives.

Many people who came out to be tested said they did so because the mobile testing units made it convenient for them. Some people also said they were more comfortable because the health workers performing the tests were not from their immediate community, so they didn’t fear being discriminated against as much within the community. Many young people came out to be tested, and some told me their friends were encouraging them to learn their HIV status.

One young man I talked with, a 17-year-old student at the vocation training center in Kizumbi, told me he had had unprotected sex with four women in the last six months. He seemed serious and concerned and was relieved when he learned he was HIV-negative. He listened closely as the counselor talked to him about condoms and the importance of protecting himself and his partners. In fact many of the teenagers who came to get tested were sexually active, and many had had unprotected sex.

Not all of the stories ended with relief. Another young woman I met, a 19-year-old high school student, broke into tears talking to the counselor about how her mother had died when she was four years-old. She was raised by her stepmother, and no one would ever tell her how her mother died. The girl was nervous about taking an HIV test. Her father had always discouraged her from doing so telling her, “The current HIV tests are not reliable.” But the girl had showed up at the Uhuru Torch rally determined to take the test. The results came back that she was HIV-positive. Talking to the counselor after the test, she said she has never had sex and questioned how she could have HIV. The counselor explained to her the multiple ways to contract HIV, including transmission from mother to child, from contaminated blood, or from sex. She quietly accepted this information, perhaps she suspected her status all along, and she agreed to tell her father.

It was difficult to watch this young, bright woman reconcile this new information with her life, but I know at least now she will be able to get the treatment she needs to stay healthy for as long as possible. Referring people who test HIV-positive to services where they can get treatment and other care is a critical part of the Uhuru Torch testing campaign.

View a slideshow with photos from this year’s Uhuru Torch celebrations and HIV counseling and testing events.