When South Africa granted Namibia its independence in 1990, they hung onto one town mid-way up the coast for a few extra years. Walvis Bay had been considered of strategic importance by Europeans for centuries. Today it serves as Namibia’s only port, and an important trading post for neighbouring African countries. It is home to Namibia’s fishing industry, and also attracts tourists with its flamingo-filled lagoon and the dunes of the Namib desert.
All this activity means a lot of temporary visitors, and all of the casual and seasonal work means a lot of people are unemployed a lot of the time. Cashed up sailors who often don’t speak English and come from countries with minimal HIV education, truck drivers and tourists mingling with disadvantaged locals are a disastrous combination for controlling the spread of HIV. There is an estimated 21 percent prevalence in the town, well above the national average.
When you combine HIV and poverty, things can get really grim. AIDS doesn’t affect wealthy people nearly as dramatically as poor people. Anti-retroviral medication means increasingly long and productive lives for people living with the virus, provided they can afford good nutrition, and provided they adhere to the treatment. If you’re poor in an urban setting, you can’t afford good nutrition, and you don’t always have the taxi money to go to the hospital to collect your anti-retroviral medication on time.
The Walvis Bay HIV/AIDS Support group exists to provide mutual support for people who have tested positive. It focuses on treatment adherence for those on medication, and regular health monitoring for those who are not yet in need of ARVs. It is also a platform for discussion of ideas about how to overcome the challenges of life with HIV that people living in Walvis Bay’s townships face.
The support group began as an initiative of the Walvis Bay Multi-purpose Centre, and BEN Namibia began talking with the centre about a Bicycle Empowerment Centre (BEC) project to benefit support group members a few years ago. The project began when Bicycles for Humanity Vancouver shipped a container of bicycles to Walvis Bay, and Pact Namibia agreed to fund the implementation costs, and is now known as the Welwitschia Bicycle Shop.
At one of the first meetings we had with the support group, the group decided that profits from the shop should be used to support other members with small enterprise funding. Recently we met with the first beneficiaries. All had existing small businesses, but with the common theme of never having enough capital to get beyond a hand-to-mouth existence. The approach the group took was to buy stock and materials for four small enterprises: two small neighbourhood tuck-shops, a traditional jewelery-maker, and a kapana (cooked meat) retailer.
While the goods were only distributed a few months ago and it’s still early days in terms of these becoming sustainable businesses, the short term results are impressive. Ester, who runs one of the tuck-shops, says she was constantly out of stock of many items because she didn’t used to have enough cash to buy stock in advance. Now she organises her stock so that when a buffer supply runs out, she replaces the buffer, meaning she is never out of stock and her customers don’t go elsewhere.
Rebekka, who sells kapana, received pots and paper napkins. The pots are much larger than her old ones and mean that she can cook and store more stock in a single day, and the paper napkins are more appealing to customers than the old reusable ones she had been using. Her earnings have increased considerably, meaning she is better able to support her five children.
We’ll be sharing the experinences in Walvis Bay with our other projects around the country, all of which use their profits to support community development in different ways. As with every project we work on, the Walvis Bay BEC has shown us yet again the value of providing skills, resources and opportunities to disadvantaged Namibians, and entrusting them to make decisions that will benefit their communities, based on their own experience of living in them.