Grace and Healing Ministry Dodoma
Grace and Healing Ministry Dodoma (GHMD) started as Esther Muhagachi’s “vision under a tree” during the time that she was working full time as a nurse in the government hospital. Invested in supporting her husband, Bishop Amos Muhagachi, in his ministry as a pastor, Esther became a leader for the women at Iringa Road Church, a Mennonite congregation in Dodoma, Tanzania’s capital. Because there was no designated space for the women’s fellowship, they met under a nearby tree, where they prayed for each other and their community.
In the midst of these prayers, visiting the sick in their homes became a mission. “[Going into their homes] is when I discovered that there was a lot of stigma for the people living with HIV,” Esther remembers.“I started teaching about how HIV spreads, and shared with the leaders at the local government. Many people were invited and when the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Tanzania country representative heard, they visited us and were very interested in supporting the training. Together with Christian Council of Tanzania (CCT),we trained 25 people as a task force for breaking the silence on HIV/AIDS.” This task force would lead what came to be known as Grace and Healing Ministry Dodoma, under the direction of Esther and the Tanzania Mennonite Church.
For the past ten years, Esther has been supervising the health team that deals with people living with HIV/AIDS and the most vulnerable children in the community. She also provides counseling and guidance to people living with HIV/AIDS, encouraging drug adherence, prevention of infections, and facilitation of the trauma healing and mentorship program within the diocese, all fighting the stigma within society. “Right now, the stigma is reduced to the extent that people are willing to share their health status. Support group fellowships have helped people to be free to share and encourage one another. People are using medication, and the government offers all the antiretroviral medicines free of charge.”
In the early days of the ministry, MCC together with CCT provided support for the training and fellowship support for the people living with HIV. They had an International Visitors Exchange Program (IVEP) which provided invaluable connections. In 2005 a group of people traveling to Rwanda happened to know one of the IVEP participants and came to Tanzania to visit her. “We invited them at our house,” Esther recalls,“and in our conversations with them, I shared my passion of helping the most vulnerable children and supporting people living with HIV. I had a concern for the children born with HIV and those who had lost their parents due to HIV/AIDS. They promised to pray for us.” Two years later they asked Esther to provide them with the names of the children that needed the most help and the Stand with Students program branch of GHMD was born. “We started with 21 kids in 2007 and have registered 200 children up to this date.” All of the children are identified as being in vulnerable environments. Some of the children are living with HIV; others have lost either one or both parents due to HIV and are living with their extended family; some are living with only one parent or living alone in a child-headed house. All are now receiving support through Iringa Road Mennonite Church, including a weekly Bible program, choir practice, games, counseling, and a meal.
“Our aim is to provide the best helping environment for people living with HIV/AIDS and their families through education, health care services, entrepreneurship, advocacy and spiritual services in order to reduce the stigma and discrimination related to HIV/AIDS. We envision a society in Dodoma where people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS can flourish and live with HOPE, DIGNITY and PEACE through Christ’s love.”
GHMD has made great strides in doing just that.
“We have many success stories that we could share, some are documented,some are not. We invite many people to visit us and some of our friends from Lahash International in Portland, Oregon (a grassroots partnership between the Church and African partners) help us to take stories back to our supporters when they visit us. The stories of Sauda, Gabriel, and Eliya were all documented. These were the very first kids to be registered in the program. They were left to die because their parents died from HIV. We found them in very terrible conditions; everyone had lost hope for them. After registering them, they started getting medicine and we provided nutrition support. Right now they are doing very well; if you were to find them singing in the choir and playing with the other kids, you may not even believe that they are sick.”
“[We have helped many], but how many more children are out there that we don’t know about and what can we do to help them come out and declare their HIV status? How can we protect them from infecting others and getting new infections? More support is needed from faith based organizations and other NGOs alongside the government…Prayer is the back bone of GHMD. We are currently developing a program for supporting the youth and would appreciate getting more support on this. Volunteers are always welcome to visit and work with the staff at GHMD to learn more about and support the situation in Dodoma.”
Friends of GHMD are also invited to participate in the “rice and beans month”, a program developed to raise funds for the nutritional support of the children living with HIV. During Lent for the past ten years, supporters, church members, and friends of GHMD have focused on three things: Simplicity, Solidarity and Sharing. “We simplify our meals, stand in unity with people battling poverty and hunger, and save and share the money raised with GHMD’s program to improve nutrition for the kids living with HIV.”
Along with her work with GHMD, Esther is a pastor’s wife, mother to four children, Violet (25), Victor (23), Grace (21) and Peace (17), and working on a Masters of Divinity with a major in Faith Formation at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. She is currently living on campus with her husband and youngest child, who is studying at Bethany Christian High School. She hopes to graduate next year and “go back to serving God in Church ministry.”