He has fought in Mozambique. He has been to the volatile jungles of war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Sergeant Harvey Mafuta, who was trained and armed to defend his country, says his military career has taught him the value of life.
It all started in the early 1990s when he graduated from the then Kamuzu Military College (KMC), now Malawi Armed Forces College (Mafco) in Salima. Mafuta and others were deployed to Mozambique to protect the Nacala railway.
“There, we braved constant attacks from Renamo soldersoldiers. Though we were frequently attacked, I survived and returned to my station—Moyale Barracks in Mzuzu,” Mafuta recalls.
This was a baptism for the fresh recruit. Few years later, he was sent to Lohata in South Africa for a Southern Africa Development Community (Sadc) peacekeeping training. However, Mafuta’s perspective of human life changed when he went to Kampala, Uganda, where he was trained in palliative care.
“While in Uganda I was touched by the sight of so many ill people, most of who were living with HIV. My passion changed. I wanted to be a soldier who serves people, and not kills,” says the soldier.
Mafuta, who is a military instructor, doubled as a clinician at Mafco.
“It was a tough time because of the many deaths associated with HIV and Aids yet there were no ARVs. This made medical work difficult,” he recalls.
When he moved to Cobbe Barracks in Zomba in 2003, Mafuta resolved to fight against HIV and Aids. In 2004, he was trained in antiretroviral therapy (ART) at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre.
“The suffering of military families and the civilian community was unbearable. As if not enough, people living with the virus were facing stigma and discrimination, leading to psychological disorders,” adds Mafuta.
As HIV and Aids coordinator at Cobbe Barracks, he formed Umodzi support group for those who declared being HIV positive and advocated for testing, counselling and treatment.
Suddenly, he was sent on another mission in DRC. “This was another trying moment. Apart from sights of people dying from gun and bomb wounds, many others were succumbing to preventable diseases. Above all, there were no procedures for either testing for HIV or starting on ART. I felt sorry for the vulnerable people.”
On his return to Cobbe Barracks, he bumped into Canadian physician Kelvin Benzanson, who works for Dignitas International-a medical and research organisation working in HIV and Aids management.
He found the physician ‘tender and devoted to the patients’. He always reassured them of good health. He rates Benzanson’s compatriot, Dr Adrienne Chan, working at Zomba Central Hospital, equally inspiring: “dedicated, humble, intelligent and cheerful.”
Mafuta believes that love and care can boost one’s confidence to withstand stigma and discrimination. “This inspired me to major in mental health when I studied for bachelor’s degree in clinical medicine.”
Later, he resigned from the military to try a new challenge.
Today, he heads programmes of Dignitas International in Machinga in the fight against HIV and Aids.
Luckily, Dignitas is one of the players implementing UNAids’ test-and-treat strategy.
Speaking in support of the test-and-treat initiatives, UNAids executive director Michel Sidibe said: “Investing in science, innovation and strategic information now will help achieve these ambitious aims. By reaching our targets in 2020, we will be firmly on track towards ending the epidemic by 2030. Acting now will bring future savings.”
Mafuta shares Sidibe’s sentiments saying, the epidemic can indeed be eliminated.
Dignitas International has embraced the 90-90-90 global campaign.
The targets requires countries to accelerate their response to ensure 90 percent of people with HIV know their status, 90 percent of them are on treatment and 90 percent of the virus in the body is suppressed to undetectable levels.
“I have met our clients at Dignitas International who upon correct and consistent taking of ARVs have HIV levels too low to be measured. Immunity for such people can easily recover and reduce chances of serious illnesses,” he adds.
“The people also have less risk of having the virus become resistant to anti-HIV drugs. Also there is reduced risk of passing on the virus to another person,” added Mafuta who chose to move out of a profession that trained him to kill, now he is fully dedicated to healing. n