Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Friends Council

Having grown up in Washington, D.C., and having just worked in the world of American politics for the last two years, I confess to being a bit jaded regarding the possibility of true cooperation and political representation.

While many work in the business of politics to enact reforms that they believe will help the American people, others are motivated by avarice, prestige, and power. These days, constructive dialogue and compromise are rarities in Washington, D.C.

Contrast the situation that I left with the one I found myself in today, sitting in a meeting of the Friends Council at the Infectious Disease Institute in Kampala. The Council is made up of 11 members, five from IDI and six from other clinics around Kampala. They are elected by their peers to serve 18-month terms on the board.

The Council, seven women and four men, advocates for HIV/AIDS patients in Kampala and around Uganda. They come together every quarter to discuss the issues that matter most to those that are infected with the virus. Today, topics ranged from increasing the number of chairs and boardgames in the clinics, to disseminating female condoms and how to institute cards that track medicine dosage for illiterate patients.

I was struck by the earnest dialogue that took place. The council members were there not to preen or ramble; they were there to work. Members were respectful, opinions were heard and discussed, and conclusions were reached. All were interested in only one thing: working to better the lives of HIV/AIDS patients in their communities.

At one point, a disagreement arose about how to replace lost ID cards and prevent the theft of expensive drugs from clinics. Voices were raised. But instead of deteriorating, one woman calmly suggested a compromise. Council members nodded their heads in approval, satisfied at the common ground.

Sitting in the meeting, it was easy to forget that members of the Council are patients themselves. All of them are infected with the HIV virus. Think about that for a moment. While waging an all-out war against a ravaging disease tearing at them physically, mentally, and emotionally, these 11 men and women were volunteering their time and energy to work for the betterment of others, to support those around them and advocate on their behalf. They all had lives to live, and families to support. Some travelled long distances to attend. All participated heartily, making their voices heard and working towards solutions. They stepped up to become leaders in their communities, not for money or fame, but to ameliorate the lives of their friends and families in ways big and small.

Near the end of the meeting, one member of the IDI staff thanked the group for their energy, and implored them to keep fighting. "Push for policies and government funding that help you, and help your community," he said. "That's the only way we will survive."

I wish more people working in Washington, D.C., could have been in that meeting.

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