According to Barbara Robertson, you know you’re accepted in a group when you’re given a nickname. Barbara’s nickname is “Mama Mweupe,” which means “White Mama.”
In Morogoro everyone who works in a car garage has a nickname. And in time, Barbara was given several nicknames from the young men at her local garage.
“It’s a sign that I was accepted as a member of their circle,” she says proudly.
Barbara serves as the HIV and AIDS prevention program director for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania’s Morogoro Diocese. She’s also a member of the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, an ELCA congregation in Olympia, Wash.
Although Barbara enjoys her work for the church, she’s most proud of her ministry and relationship among the people she affectionately calls the “garage boys.”
It all started when Barbara’s car needed extensive repair work.
“There’s no such thing as emergency towing services in Morogoro,” she says. But a group of young men from a local garage graciously offered to give Barbara a tow back to town when her car broke down. And for six months, these young men worked on her car trying to figure out why it kept overheating.
“In the end my car completely died,” she says, and the young men at the garage ended up “thanking me.”
“The guys said to me, ‘Mama, we know this car gave you a lot of grief. But it was a blessing to us. We learned so much about your particular Land Rover that we can now take one apart in our sleep,’” recounts Barbara, who felt compelled to return the thanks.
“But I had nothing material to give them, so I decided to offer them information about HIV and AIDS.” The owner of the garage, Joseph, offered space for the lesson.
“I was expecting about 15 guys to show up. I was so surprised to find 50 of them waiting for me,” says Barbara.
She began her lesson with, “Your mothers would really love to talk to you about HIV and AIDS but because of cultural constraints, they don’t feel comfortable calling you aside. So today I’m here to talk to you all on behalf of your mothers.”
Her main message to the young men is “have long-term life goals, be responsible, and get tested.”
As a result, many of the young men got tested for HIV, “something they never would have done otherwise,” says Barbara.
The older men among the group hounded Barbara to have another session. This time 70 young men came, and many of them got tested.
Afterward Joseph, the owner of the garage, told Barbara, “It matters that you come. They have changed because of you.”
And Barbara is changed because of them. “How honored I am that they should listen to what I have to say.”
Candid conversation is life-changing, life-saving
“What I really like about my work is that I can be completely candid,” says Barbara.
“As a white, middle-aged woman, I am allowed to speak with total honesty. I’m also not constricted by the cultural norms,” she says, adding that in this case, it’s helpful to be an outsider. “There are very few people (in Tanzania) that are allowed that luxury, being able to speak without reserve.”
And it’s that candid conversation that allows Barbara to change lives.
“In the world of HIV, preventing just one man from getting HIV can have a huge effect on the infection rate. So in my mind, helping more than 70 young men know their status now will have a significant, positive effect in the future,” Barbara says.
About 3 million people in Tanzania are HIV-positive. More than 60 percent of them are women.
Worldwide the HIV and AIDS crisis has claimed more than 25 million lives. Members of the ELCA are working to respond faithfully and effectively to this pandemic through the “ELCA Strategy on HIV and AIDS.”
The goals of the strategy include efforts to help halt the spread of HIV, reduce the conditions of poverty that contribute to the spread and eliminate the stigma and discrimination experienced by those who are HIV-positive.
According to Barbara, there is significant stigma and discrimination about HIV and AIDS among Tanzanians. As a result, people are often reluctant to get tested, since knowing one’s status can mean open discrimination.
“Only 30 percent of the adult population here has ever been tested for HIV,” says Barbara. “People are really afraid of HIV. There’s even a fatalistic mindset about it — ‘everyone has it, so there’s no point in taking precaution.’ “
“So bringing a message of hope, I believe, is really important,” says Barbara, especially among the “garage boys.”