It is not every day that an intern gets sent to The Gambia and asked to solely represent an organization and kick-start its expansion in West-Africa. No easy job. However, the decision and trust North Star Alliance had in sending me symbolizes two of their key strengths – youthful and ambitious. Their professionalism and commitment to the cause is staggering, and the ‘family feel’ amongst the small group of staff overwhelming. As many of the African truck driver’s experience, the road has been bumpy and dusty and there is still a long way to go, however my own remarkable journey has come to an end, and geared me up to reach the stars!
North Star’s African-wide network of innovative, cost-effective and demand-driven Roadside Wellness Centres (RWC) targeting the most-at-risk-populations to HIV/AIDS, is unique in its multi-sectoral approach. It values inclusive and mutually reinforcing relationships with the public and private sector, living up to the well-known phrase, ‘if you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far, go together’. However, this is easier said than done. My early, perhaps naïve and optimistic prediction, was to set up an RWC from start to finish. Considering, the timezone, GMT – Gambia Maybe Time – and realistic target setting, it quickly became apparent it would only be feasible for me to explore the opportunities and tackle the necessary groundwork. This consisted of partner mobilization, advocacy & awareness raising, hotspot mapping and other qualitative assessments to justify a RWC and its location, and acquiring all the necessary paperwork for registration, site permits, memorandum of understandings and other agreements, both official and unofficial.
What I am implying is that business in Africa is largely done according to ‘who you know, not what you know’. In project management, it’s a difficult skill to correctly identify the next step and even harder to establish a personal and professional relationship with a partner. Cultural barriers are not easily broken. It takes time. And as the Gambian’s rightly say, ‘take it easy, this is the smiling coast’.
The dedication, of especially UNAIDS and the National AIDS Secretariat, two key partners in the project, in the battle against HIV/AIDS has been outstanding. With a relatively low prevalence rate of only 1.6%, minimal compared to the double figures seen in Southern Africa, The Gambia is rightly gearing up towards prevention rather than treatment. However, the conservative nature of its people, lack of dedicated health services, problematic access to condoms and certain religious practices, none more so than polygamy, are major obstacles in the country’s battle against HIV/AIDS.
It has been a privilege to work on this much needed project. Hraving joined a civil society group on sex worke intervention programmes and talks at brothels and lodges, it remains clear commercial sex workers and truck drivers remain exposed to high-risk behaviours. They need the devotion and stringent implementation of focused national measures and help from external initiatives such as North Star Alliance. With ambitious plans to extend their current network of 21 RWC’s to the optimal level of 100 by 2014, I am glad I had the opportunity to contribute to their amazing work.