Making a difference
She’d been lucky to survive being two months premature when her twin, tragically, did not. So when Helen Allen had the chance to go back to the country of their birth, she was desperate to help in any way she could
A UK nurse whose twin died as a baby in Zambia has raised Dh2.2 million to help women there suffering from HIV and Aids.
Born two months premature in an impoverished district of Zambia, Africa, the tiny baby struggled to survive at first. But nurtured in one of the first incubators in the area, and kept alive by her mother, Sally, with sips of breast milk from a spoon, Helen clung on and gradually gained weight.
Sadly her twin sister Mary did not; stillborn, she was buried in Zambia. And when the family returned to their native Great Britain 16 months later, Helen would have only the black and white snapshot taken when the twins were born to remind her of the sister she lost.
Growing up, Helen Allen always longed to return to the country where she took her first breath, and where her twin was buried. Yet it was only when she began studying to be a nurse at the University of Nottingham that she had the opportunity. For their work experience, students could travel anywhere in the world. And for Helen there was only one natural choice – Zambia.
“I knew nothing about healthcare there, except that HIV and Aids were a huge problem, as they are throughout sub-Saharan Africa,” says Helen, 34. “I wanted to see if I could help in some way.”
In Zambia more than one in seven people aged 15 to 49 is HIV positive, according to the 2009 Unicef report ‘Countdown to Zero’. The worsening economic situation, breakdown in social and healthcare systems, cultural beliefs, traditions and practices have been cited as reasons for the large number of HIV cases.
According to a 2012 Unicef report, every hour, three young people become infected with HIV, two of them girls.
Fell in love with the country of her birth
Helen was desperate to help. Riding through the African bush on a motorcycle to reach the Monze and Mazabuka districts of Zambia where she was going to meet some family friends who were involved in charity work, she fell instantly in love with the country of her birth.
“It’s such an amazingly beautiful country, and the people are wonderful. A friend called it paradise – but also hell, because people have such huge problems too.”
Her friend Wilson Nyirenda’s charity – Simalelo (which means ‘my guardian and provider’) Aids Peer Education Programme (Sapep) – was involved in setting up programmes to educate people about the disease as well as to offer them advice on how to protect themselves against it. It also gave sufferers practical help on how to manage their condition and to live healthy lives.
The HIV/Aids epidemic was devastating the population and spreading rapidly because of cultural factors and a lack of healthcare and knowledge. Facing extreme poverty, many women felt they had no choice but to sell their bodies. Many didn’t know about HIV, but among those who did, many were willing to take huge health risks eschewing safety measures for larger fees.
“It was shocking, but what struck me most was that often people had no choice, and I wanted to change that,” says Helen, who lives in Manchester.
Apart from educating women on the dangers of the condition, she also wanted to give them an opportunity to earn a living without having to sacrifice their health or their lives.
Helen worked with Sapep, which was changing lives through a grass-roots programme of economic empowerment, care and support. Among other things, the charity gave the most needy women grants to help create vegetable and fruit gardens or to raise chickens or goats. The sale of flowers, fruit and livestock gave the women a sustainable livelihood and stopped them from entering the flesh trade. Helen was part of the group that also conducted workshops highlighting the dangers of HIV and Aids.
It was not surprising that almost all the women she met had tragic tales to tell. Eve*, 32, began selling her body after her husband, the only breadwinner of the house, died. “It was the
only way I could get money to raise my two daughters and give them an education,’’ she says.
She was HIV positive and even though she knew she could pass the virus to the men who paid her, she didn’t know how to do anything else to survive. “If I did, I would stop the work I’m doing,’’ she told volunteers at the charity.
One 19-year-old woman was found living in a bus shelter. An orphan, she was pregnant and had nowhere to go as her home had been taken by her uncle, who threw her out. She had lost both her parents to Aids and was now HIV positive herself.
“Listening to the stories of the women, I realised if they had an option of taking up a proper job, they definitely would,” says Helen. “I wanted to work towards giving them options.’’
Making it official
Back in the UK after her three-month work experience project, and after graduating in nursing in 2001, Helen began work at Wythenshawe Hospital in Manchester in the cardio-thoracic surgical unit. But in her spare time she did everything she could to raise money for Sapep.
She was sponsored to run the Nottingham half marathon to raise funds for the programme and told friends about her plans to help women in Zambia. A turning point occurred when an anonymous donor offered Helen £10,000 (Dh55,427) to register a charity to raise funds. So in August, five months after first visiting Africa, Helen’s charity Pepaids (Peer Education Programme against Aids) was registered.
She began organising fundraisers – walks, charity balls, participating in short runs, speaking at schools and colleges – and channelling funds to Sapep, which was among other things working with local hospitals, health clinics and community projects to sensitise and empower communities.
Very early on in the fundraising, Helen volunteered to work as a night nurse so that she could run the charity during the day.
While raising money, she married Mike, had two children, George, now six, and Sophie, five, and juggled them with her career as she tried to raise as much money as she could for the women in Zambia.
Over the past 12 years Helen has raised £400,000, which has meant Sapep has been able to help over one million people there.
Helen still visits Zambia as often as she can and arranges a steady stream of volunteers – mostly medical, nursing and midwifery students go there to share their expertise.
Sasha Kasthuriarachchi, a theatre enthusiast based in Manchester, was one of the volunteers. She developed a training package for community groups in Zambia that included a participatory form of theatre that encourages the audience to get involved in the play. Instead of being passive spectators, they can get up on stage and offer to solve the problems by acting out different solutions themselves. This helped a great deal in educating people about HIV and Aids, says Helen.
With Helen’s backing, Sasha won aWorld of Difference award – run by the Vodafone Foundation in the UK – which gives people the chance to work for a UK charity of their choice, and get paid.
“Seeing the condition of the people who were affected by HIV was really sad and I was looking for ways to improve their lives,’’ says Helen.
As well as fighting Aids, the charity also has other initiatives including Pepaids School of Good Hope, which was set up in 2010 in villages to improve the quality of education. This has already helped more than 1,000 children.
“Because I was born there, and my stillborn twin sister is buried there, I have a special place in my heart for Zambia,’’ Helen says.
Her mission, Helen adds, is to play her part in turning the tide of the Aids epidemic and helping people break free of poverty by empowering them.
“Pepaids enables people, and helps them to change their own lives and the lives of others, for the better,’’ she says.
“I know that poverty and Aids are huge problems, but that doesn’t put me off. Big change starts with small people – individuals doing something differently. And that’s what I am doing.”
One of the offshoots of Sapep is the Community Positive Living Club, which conducts programmes for HIV positive people on how to live healthier lives