For fisher populations vulnerable to HIV, peer mentors make all the difference
Mason, a divorced, 48-year-old fisherman who was struggling to make a living because of his poor health, had never considered getting tested for HIV.
Until he talked to Geofrey Taombe, a trained peer mentor with Pact’s FISH-DREAMS project.
Geofrey and Mason knew each other from a long time ago, which helped Geofrey start a conversation with Mason when he saw him this September in Mason’s village in Machinga, in southern Malawi, at the edge of Lake Chilwa, which provides livelihoods for many local residents. Geofrey is a dedicated peer mentor in the area.
“I was very weak around that time,” Mason recalls.
Geofrey talked to Mason about the importance of getting tested for HIV. If he was positive, Geofrey explained, Mason could get on treatment that would help him feel better.
Mason resisted but listened. “After the session, it took me five solid days to settle for a decision to go for an HIV test,” he says.
When he finally decided, he told Geofrey, who dropped what he was doing to accompany Mason to the health facility he’d referred him to days before.
Pact peer mentors receive bicycles to help them visit communities to which they are assigned.
When Mason got his result – he was HIV-positive – Geofrey was there to support him and help him immediately begin antiretroviral therapy, or ART.
“I knew Geoffrey a long time ago and had confidence with the way he approached me,” Mason says. “As such, I never doubted confiding my HIV status to him, knowing for sure that he would keep it a secret and help provide necessary support to me.”
The FISH-DREAMS project, funded by PEPFAR and USAID, is improving HIV service platforms to reach high-risk men in fishing communities in Malawi. The project is working to better understand barriers to ART among these men, and to introduce HIV Test and Start service delivery in Machinga and Zomba. Peer mentors are a big part of the equation. They are trained to conduct both one-on-one and group sessions.
For Mason, Geofrey’s guidance and mentoring has made all the difference. Mason says he never would have learned his HIV status if not for Geofrey.
Today, Mason is feeling stronger, he is able to work, and he encourages other fishermen to have the courage to get tested like he did.
“As am talking to you now, I am on ART and at least am feeling better as compared to before I got tested for HIV,” Mason says. “I am able to do some small piece of work on my farm, as well as weaving fishing baskets in preparation for the coming waters on Lake Chilwa.”
*Mason's name was changed for this story, as he did not want his identity shared.
Lead photo: Pact peer mentors gather for training.