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CAR: Learning to serve better

“Many people fear that getting to know their HIV status is like waking up a lion.” This expressive statement comes from Garlan Andjilio-Gbokossi, a young man who works as a counsellor with the Information, Education and Listening Centre (CIEE) run by the Jesuits at the University of Bangui. Garlan and his colleagues at the CIEE are determined not to let the sleeping lions lie.

“In normal times, we invite students to get tested regularly,” says Garlan. “There are people who have HIV and are unaware of it. This means they can’t get treatment so that the disease evolves quicker in them and they risk infecting their partners through unprotected sex.”

Despite the massive insecurity and political upheaval that has rocked the Central African Republic over the past several months, the CIEE has done its utmost to press ahead with its mission of “compassion and charity”. Throughout 2013, it continued to form the young people on its teams, the peer educators, leaders and counsellors, to equip them with the knowledge and skills to implement HIV prevention.

Part of the training for the new CIEE counsellors consisted of a placement at a VCT centre in Bangui, so that they could have hands-on experience of counselling before and after HIV testing and, in case of a positive result, to follow up on individual cases. Garlan did this placement and said: “We received wise and edifying advice from the personnel of the centre.”

Rouandji Thierry and Seni-Kamakaka Wilfried Stanislas, who went to a different centre, agreed. Thierry said: “The social worker was always giving us practical advice, helping us to reframe our questions in the counselling sessions so that the client would not only feel free to open up but also and especially so that he wouldn’t feel as if he was under interrogation.”

They heard how a key objective of counselling linked to HIV testing is to discover how much the client actually knows about the virus. The idea is to correct any mistaken ideas about routes of transmission and to develop an individual plan with the client, so that he may reduce any risks of infection he may be facing. Clients found to be HIV-positive are immediately referred for medical consultation and for sessions in treatment literacy, so they can learn how to live with the virus with the support they need to do so.

Garlan found the placement a good opportunity to learn more about how to accompany another “in all his dimensions”. He sees the counselling relationship as a means of seeking effective collaboration with the client. “Collaboration allows you to take the individual is his sum total: knowing, knowing how to be and knowing what to do. Collaboration means seeking to discover the secret [in the other], his attitudes and positive behaviours, and to help him to make use of them.”

Above all, Garlan was moved by the experience of walking with his clients as they faced their HIV test. “We shared the state of being of the people who were tested,” he said. “When the result was positive, we shared compassion. And joy was equally shared when the result was negative. We always encouraged clients to guard their sero-negative status by behaving responsibly. To those found to be HIV-positive, we offered words of hope and comfort, to help them to keep up their morale, to get over the shock, to accept the result and to look to the future with confidence.”