Photo Credit: Associação IRIS

Written by Ana Diaz, Angola LINKAGES Program Manager

Since September 2015 when I joined LINKAGES in Angola, every waking moment has been consumed working through the nitty gritty details that starting up a new project entails. Although Angola has been my home for the past 4 years and I was no stranger to what it takes to operate an HIV project here, I still spent many sleepless nights, stressing over how we would meet targets, set up our service delivery partners for success despite many operational challenges, and build a strong partnership with the government. I would wake up wondering, why did I agree to join LINKAGES? The answer: its ambitious mandate, to reduce HIV transmission among key populations and their partners and to improve their enrollment and retention in care across the HIV cascade.  I had joined LINKAGES, I would tell myself, because of the challenge to improve HIV services for people.

As 2015 ended and a new year started, I have had more time to reflect on the road ahead, and have come to realize that aside from fulfilling our urgent mandate, the real reason why I joined LINKAGES is because of the challenge of restoring human dignity. Men and women who have been persecuted based on their sexual identity or behaviour face the challenge every day to feel worthy of honour and respect by others. This is something many of us take for granted. But this is the real challenge at the heart of LINKAGES. Bringing hope and real possibilities to people who are victims of double and triple stigma and discrimination every day, to help them realize that they matter, is immensely important.

When the days get stressful, and the pressure starts to mount again, I now search for two reminders of what LINKAGES means to me. The first one, is Delfina Costa, a former sex worker and peer educator for 6 years with our partner ASCAM. After listening to our presentation of what LINKAGES wanted to accomplish in Angola, Delfina had the boldness of approaching USAID, without going to her immediate supervisors first, and asking when peer educators like her could be trained as community HIV counsellors. We of course, complied. At her graduation ceremony, which was presided by the National Director of HIV Counselling and Testing, Delfina’s remarks have dignity written all over it : I always followed HIV testing on the sidelines, watching carefully how it was performed on the women I referred. I always wanted to test. Now I can.”

My second reminder is this picture. A rainbow flag being proudly waved by a young MSM activist from our partner IRIS, through the crowd of over 5,000 walkers at World Aids Day Walk in Angola’s capital, Luanda, this past December 1st. In a society where men who have sex with men and transgender people are at best ignored, the public took notice. After the walk, pictures of the flag among the crowd appeared in several local media. One newspaper remarked: “Is not every day that someone living in a conservative society like Angolan society has the courage to publicly express the pride of being who they are without fear or preconception”. “That flag”, the newspaper added, “has the colors of progress”.