Why water is vital in Zambia's fight with HIV: World AIDS Day

1 December 2017
Jelina 61, shares a light moment with niece Sharon, 7, while preparing a meal at her home in Simakalanga, Kazungula, Zambia, November 2017. WaterAid/ Chileshe Chanda

Chileshe Chanda, our Voices from the Field officer in Zambia, reflects on the vital need for water in communities living with HIV. 

Working around the theme of HIV recently has got me thinking about things, which I otherwise wouldn’t have noticed, despite having worked with rural communities for more than two years.

I met Jelina a few weeks ago, first through a phone call that I made to her clinic in Simango, a rural health centre of Kazungula District and then in person recently.

Jelina is 61 and HIV positive but she is very active and jovial. Her personality was the exact opposite of what I expected of an elderly person in that condition.

We settled down in the living room of her two-room house. It was a bit dark in there since it only had two tiny windows, so I politely asked if we could keep the door widely open and she gladly accepted.

Jelina Siamato, 61, reading her bible in her home, Kazungula, Zambia, November 2017.WaterAid/ Chileshe Chanda

“So Chileshe, what do you want me to tell you about myself?” Jelina asked as I was thinking about how best to begin the difficult conversation on HIV which she has lived with since the early 1990s.

As our conversation progressed, Jelina painted indelible pictures in my mind on just how critical clean water is, especially to an ailing person.

If you have never been critically ill before, this may be hard to internalise, so she said to me;

Chileshe, imagine you are very ill, to the extent that some people even thought you were dead. You ask for mere drinking water and someone gives you dirty or contaminated water to drink – diarrhoea-causing water.

As I was internalising it, I didn’t realise I was silent for a long time, when she quickly chipped in a low tone voice that said, "You know what, I can survive without food for a few days but not without water."

Whilst before I would generalise the problem of a lack of clean water in rural communities, now I realise the situation was even worse for individuals whose immunity had been compromised – those that are fighting the HIV in their bodies. I now know that we cannot talk about fighting HIV in isolation of the provision of clean drinking water.

If I continued drinking the water we were drinking, I am sure I could have died by now

Jelina is now drawing water from a borehole that was set up by WaterAid in her community.

As we came to the end of our discussion, I raised my eyes scanning around her living room and saw a WaterAaid poster bearing a picture I took in 2015 that promoted menstrual hygiene. The poster was stuck on the wall and beautifully decorated and I asked why. 

Jelina said she loves WaterAid because they brought water and more life to her.

Let me thank WaterAid supporters, partners and donors for the enormous difference they are making not only in poor communities but also in people’s individual and very personal lives. We may never tell them all these life-changing stories but this is an example of how deep their help goes.

Chileshe is the Voices from the Field officer in Zambia. He is amongst 8 officers around the world who work directly with the communities we support by regularly gathering photos, videos and interviews. Read more about Voices from the Field here.