Woman of strength

"I will not give up!"

August 1, 2010
Mugumu, Tanzania

In the Imara health clinic in Mugumu Tanzania, there is a painting of the John 8 gospel story of the woman caught in adultery.

In this particular painting, all of the characters are African, and unlike my preconception, the woman's head is held high. She is a woman of strength, forgiven by Jesus.

There is another woman of strength in the Imara health clinic and her name is Mary Tumbo. Diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in the mid-90s, Mary was abandoned by her husband.

But sitting under a tree one way, Mary and two other women decided they could help other women in their community who were dying of HIV/AIDS. They began visiting with these women and doing what needed to be done to help them die with dignity.

Not too much later, both of Mary's friends also died of AIDS, but Mary was not deterred. "I will not give up," she said.

Today, the Imara health clinic serves more than 600 clients who are living with HIV/AIDS or who are children whose parents have already died. Mennonite Central Committee has partnered with Imara for more than 20 years.

Mary Tumbo, now called Mama Benja, is responsible for home-based care. Each day, she travels many kilometers to visit women and children who are not able to come to the clinic.

On a Sunday afternoon in early August, I traveled with Mama Benja and Imara executive director Micenzo to meet some of the families she works with. The first woman we visited, Neema, who is also HIV positive, now cares for five children alone after her husband died of AIDS a number of years ago.

Neema is also a volunteer who visits other women like her who need help. Neema says she'd have died years ago without Imara's help of healthcare, medicine, food and more. She says she wants to continue to be healthy for as long as possible so she can care for her children.

Neema says the stigma and discrimination of HIV/AIDS is not as great as it once was. "People no longer point at me," she tells us.

Both Mary and Neema are part of a group of women at Imara who are called Group of Hope. Each week about 150 women gather together for Bible study, conversation and a meal.

Imara is the only health clinic in the region providing care for people with HIV/AIDS. Imara, say Micenzo and Mary, is like one small light in a very large area of darkness.

The incidents of HIV/AIDS in this part of Tanzania are decreasing faster than in other parts of the country. The work of Imara is certainly a contributing factor.

"I will not give up," Mary Tumbo declared when it would have been very easy for her to do so. Mary, Neema and many others like them are women of strength, showing us what it means to follow Jesus.


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