Malawi’s largest HIV organisation celebrates 20 years of saving lives

This year, the National Association of People Living with HIV in Malawi turns 20 and celebrates a proud history of helping people learn how to live positively.

This year, the National Association of People Living with HIV in Malawi (NAPHAM) turns 20 and celebrates a proud history of helping people learn how to live positively.

The genesis of NAPHAM

When NAPHAM was launched in August 1993, no one anticipated that it would grow from four people to the biggest organisation for people living with HIV in Malawi, with over 80,000 members.

It began when Winnie Chikafumbwa, a government secretary, discovered her HIV status in 1992. She was invited to attend a workshop in the Netherlands organised by International Women Living with HIV and AIDS. Upon her return, Winnie went public with her HIV status. Through health workers, she met other people living with HIV, including Jane Paranjeta, Tereza Kampeni and Dickens Kolondo—the only surviving founder—who is now NAPHAM’s assistant programme manager.

Kolondo recalls: “On August 21, 1993, the first meeting was conducted. Meeting face to face with other people living with HIV was a great relief because living with HIV at that time was like carrying a death sentence.

“Winnie shared with us what she learned in the Netherlands and her idea of starting an organisation.”

Unfortunately, Winnie Chikafumbwa died on 25 October 1997 without accessing the free antiretroviral therapies she had advocated for.

Idea of coming together

“We wanted to provide a forum for people living with HIV to share experience and information, and to find solace because we were stigmatised and treated like outcasts. We wanted to create an environment for people to live positively and to fight against human rights violations we were experiencing,” said Kolondo.

Soon after the first meeting, the four founders mobilised other people, and the membership grew rapidly.

The first activities included providing group therapy, growing kitchen gardens, delivering HIV education and establishing income-generating activities and a fund for medication.

Meetings under a mango tree

In the early days, the support group negotiated with Bottom hospital (now Bwaila hospital) administration for a meeting place on the hospital premises. The space offered to them was a mango tree.

“This was before the government of Malawi recognised HIV and AIDS as a national crisis, and there was a lot of stigma and discrimination,” says Kolondo. “Members were not happy to be meeting under a mango tree as it was not conducive for support group meetings.”

A few months later, the group moved to Lilongwe AIDS Counseling and Education Centre. When the group was unable to pay rent, Winnie offered her home for the group meetings, and the group grew bigger and bigger each day.

In 1994, the only asset NAPHAM had was a bicycle they received from the then National AIDS Control Programme.

Major challenges

Reverend Maurice Kalimenda, chairperson of NAPHAM’s board of trustees, told a gathering during anniversary celebrations that although his organisation has established about 1,600 support groups countrywide, it has failed to train and provide technical assistance to all people registered in those groups.

He says inadequate financial and material support has contributed to their failure to reach certain groups, especially the rural poor, HIV-positive young people, men living with HIV and the economic elite.

‘We have failed to reach these groups because of limited resources, including vehicles, motorbikes, bicycles and office equipment. More importantly, we do not have our own offices in the districts. These consume a lot of money,” says Kalimenda.

Even though his organisation is constrained by its resources, he says it will continue to implement its activities.

Partners assisting NAPHAM

Many donors have assisted NAPHAM over the years with financial, material and technical support, including OXFAM, Comic Relief through Interact Worldwide and Plan International, the World Bank, DFID through Interact Worldwide, World University Services of Canada (WUSC), Médicines San Frontièrs (MSF), Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), European Union-NSA, Hunger Project and World Vision.

The main donor is the Malawi government through the National AIDS Commission, which is a principal recipient of the Global Fund grants.

Also speaking during the celebrations, Dr. Justin Chimera Malewezi, former first vice-president of Malawi and current patron of NAPHAM, says he is proud to be associated with the organisation because it is serving people and saving the lives of people living with HIV amid many challenges.

“My request is that well-wishers, governments and funding partners should continue supporting the noble work of NAPHAM,” he said.

Winnie Chikafumbwa died a long time ago, but her legacy lives on.