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Zambia: A tribute to Gregory

Danielle Vella, AJAN communications

Gregory was “Mr four-phase-approach”. He earned the nickname thanks to his enthusiasm to convert other people with HIV to a more self-reliant way of life, as promoted by his parish in rural Zambia.

Chikuni Parish transformed its home-based care (HBC) project a few years ago in a bid to reduce dependence among beneficiaries. Intervention was split into four phases of prevention, outreach, income-generation and self-help groups (SHGs).

As chairman for people living with HIV in the HBC, Gregory was the chief apologist, in words and action, of the new way of doing things. He really understood that the SHG concept espoused by the program helped people not only to earn enough today but also to save for a tangibly better future.

Gregory was so full of life, it was difficult to imagine him unwell or even tired. Yet he died of renal failure and severe malaria on 25 May, aged 66, leaving a gaping void in Chikuni HBC and in his family – a dearly loved wife and nine children.

“The HBC has lost one of its pillars. The gap he has left will be difficult to fill,” said Stembisiwe Peme, the Chikuni SHG coordinator. She describes Gregory as “a good dreamer” who never tired of working, a man who knew how to listen and how to grasp new ideas, to interpret them nicely and to transmit them to others, easily adapting his style in a way that fit the target group.

Fr Kelly Michelo, the Jesuit priest at Chikuni who engineered the transformation of the HBC, said: “We didn’t need a staff member to explain how HBC works, Gregory did that with passion. Thanks to him, most of our people with HIV believe in and are happy with the way the HBC is running today. As a person living with HIV himself, Gregory was ready to explain their rights to them and how they can better their lives.”

But acceptance of a scheme that emphasized sustainability rather than handouts was far from automatic: “When the new approach was introduced, most people didn’t understand what it was about. Some feared the HBC would be closed down and others even accused me of prioritizing business at the expense of health.”

Hence the indispensable contribution of Gregory, who also served as SHG extension officer from 2012 until his death: “Once Gregory understood the holistic approach to care we were looking for, he took time at night, before going to sleep, and during meetings to help others understand how this approach aimed to improve their lives.”

Gregory had many qualities that made him a remarkable person and a huge asset to the HBC, not least commitment and concern for his community. His colleagues miss a “kind friend to all”, a “father who could understand our problems”, who “loved to seek others’ opinions before bringing his own”. They never saw Gregory annoyed, “he was always a smiler.”

Gregory happily took on the role of HBC ‘spokesman’ with foreign visitors too. When I went to Chikuni in September 2013, Gregory was my guide for the day, taking me to every income-generating activity at the HBC centre, acting as translator at a self-help group meeting nearby, introducing me to his wife and taking me to visit their farm, where they successfully grew vegetables for sale.

I was charmed by Gregory, by his easy friendliness and his passion for the work. He was so deeply interested in development that Fr Kelly called him “a development practitioner in the real sense of the word”.

The secret, Gregory emphasized, lay in involving families. “This is the only way to get development,” he told me during a meeting of a self-help group whose members run modest farming businesses thanks to training, distribution of seeds and mutual loans. “These people have their own definition of development, they are doing it. That’s why it’s so touching. They have vision. They involve their families, teaching them the skills they learn. Even the youngest child knows where the seeds are, where they came from and that they need to be repaid.”

Two other things impressed me. One was Gregory’s openly affectionate relationship with his wife. They laughed and joked together as they posed for photos and when my phone was stolen later on the same trip, I was upset above all because I had lost those photos. I knew then I was capturing something special.

The other thing was Gregory’s incredible openness about his positive status. “I was diagnosed five years ago and my wife is negative,” he told me. “When I was diagnosed, I knew what was happening to me, I recognized the symptoms because I had been teaching about these things. For me, because of all the training I had received, I was okay and had no problem to continue preaching the Gospel.”

Gregory was referring to the in-service training he had received when working with the Zambia Red Cross and as a social community development worker with the Development Office of Monze Diocese (where Chikuni is located).

When he was diagnosed, Gregory joined the Chikuni HBC and worked as community mobiliser to encourage others to be open about their HIV-positive status. Something he often used to tell others was: Kuti koyanda bantu kuti bakupe bulemu, kotaanguna ulipe bulemu omwini, meaning “if you want people to respect you, respect yourself first.”

Stembisiwe said Gregory was a man who loved to see results of his labour. She recalled: “In every planning meeting we had with him, his last remarks would be Ba Coordinator mutapengi tulabeleka kuti Leza kacitupa buumi, meaning ‘Madam Coordinator don’t worry, we will do the work if God gives us life’.”

For as long as God gave him life, Gregory did the work and saw the results. The Chikuni HBC was blessed to have him as a leading member for several years and will miss his sterling contribution so much. But Gregory’s legacy, in the information and encouragement he gave to others living with HIV, in his family, and in the friendship he gave so freely, will remain. Thank you, Gregory!