PEPFAR Heroes Tea

As Prepared For Delivery | March 4, 2015 | Gaborone

Good afternoon.

Thank you all for coming. It is an honor to host such an exceptional group of individuals at the residence today. You are the first guests to visit the residence since I became U.S. Ambassador to Botswana, and that was purposeful. I just feel safer in a room full of heroes.

But what is a hero? When you look up the word “hero” you get many definitions, from the mythological or legendary figures endowed with great strength or ability, to a person admired for his or her achievements and noble qualities.

My favorite definition is this one: “A person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal.”

I think this definition best describes the people here today. Among us are social workers, community activists, mothers, fathers, a teacher and a construction worker. You may not consider yourselves heroes, but this was a quality recognized by your peers and colleagues. You are model citizens and you did something that deserves recognition. We are here today to say “thank you” for your contributions.

Last year, the Botswana team of the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (or PEPFAR) put out a nation-wide call for nominations of people who have gone above and beyond to raise awareness about HIV prevention, gender-based violence (GBV) and access to services for marginalized groups in Botswana. Today we are honoring the 12 PEPFAR Heroes chosen who have shown tremendous dedication and commitment to ensure that their communities are aware of these issues and that something is being done to address them.

Nominations came from individuals, partners, districts and U.S. agency teams.

And as you already know, you are being featured in a 2015 calendar and celebrated throughout this year in social media and traditional media platforms.

If you will allow me, I would like to take this moment to say a few words about each of our 12 heroes, most of who are here today. I’ll start with our January hero and work my way to December:

Our first hero, Boitumelo Segwabanyana helped transform the health landscape at Dukwi Refugee Camp in northern Botswana. She was a social worker for the Botswana Red Cross Society, and was later promoted as Project Coordinator to oversee health programs for refugees. At that time, Dukwi was a difficult place to be. It was against government policy for foreigners to access free anti-retroviral therapy, and so HIV-positive refugees had few options. Boitumelo played a pivotal role to influence a change in that policy. In April 2009, working hand-in-hand with the U.S. government, UNHCR and the Botswana Network on Ethics, Law and HIV/AIDS (BONELA), she helped convince the Government of Botswana to change its policy and allow refugees to access PEPFAR-sponsored treatment. Today, the camp is once again alive and thriving. Thank you, Boitumelo.

Mr. Isaac Rasesia is the Safety, Health and Education officer at Estate Construction Limited in Molepolole. He is a hero who knows that best way to lead is by example. He was the first in line when a nurse came to his worksite offering the new, non-surgical method of safe male circumcision called Pre-Pex. Then he convinced two-dozen of his co-workers to do the same. Mr. Rasesia went even further to ensure all of his colleagues turned up for their check-up visits. Thank you, Issac.

Our March Hero, Ms. Balekanye Mosweu is a Francistown mother who discovered in 2006 that she was both HIV positive and pregnant with twins. She immediately enrolled in the Prevention of Mother-to-Child Treatment program and was one of the first women in the country to benefit from Early Infant Testing so she could find out the status of her newborns in weeks instead of months. Her twins, – Thata and Thatayaone, who are now 8 years old, healthy and HIV-negative – represent the promise of a hopeful future: that of an AIDS-free generation. Thank you, Balekanye.

Ms. Florence Kenalemang cares deeply about her community in Sefhare, and she directs all of her time and energy towards making sure that youth in her community have the skills, resources, and positive attitudes to face HIV/AIDS, teenage pregnancy and drug and alcohol abuse. Florence does all of this work with enthusiasm, a kind heart, and a smile on her face. Florence founded and runs a local NGO that offers free pre-school services to children in her village. Often, she gives from her own pocket to ensure children don’t go hungry or feel left out. Thank you, Florence.

Our May hero is Margaret Mosojane and she is an incredible advocate for children and gender issues. During her 20 years as Tati Town Customary Court President, Margaret witnessed both the good and bad effects that traditional and cultural practices can have on couples, on people living with HIV, and on young women who have been victimized by violence. Since 2011, Margaret has written a column in The Voice newspaper called “Traditional Wisdom,” which challenges negative cultural practices she has encountered. Through her writing, she has done much to raise awareness about HIV prevention, children’s rights and gender-based violence. The goal of her column, she says, is to “steer people to think as individuals, and not let tradition or culture always cloud our thinking.” Thank you, Margaret.

Next is Josephine Piet, who is a project officer for Tebelopele VCT in the Chobe District. She has distinguished herself as a prominent leader, community activist and dedicated service provider working to meet the needs of key populations – especially female sex workers – in Kazungula. Since 2012, Josephine has worked with the U.S.-funded Tebelopele project in Kasane, which has reached an estimated 1500 female sex workers with HIV and STI prevention, harm-reduction and psychosocial support services. Ms. Piet says that she is not advocating for the legalization of sex work, nor is she supportive of sex work, but she cares about these women very much. She says, quote, “They are like my children and I want them to be safe.” Thank you, Josephine.

Mr. Legodile Nthoiwa is a civilian employee of the Botswana Defence Force who is responsible for the health of 18,000 troops. He has been the pillar and the life support for the BDF HIV prevention campaign called “SEKWATA” as the Project Support Officer since 2011. The campaign is supported by the U.S. Department of Defense through PEPFAR in an effort to respond to the HIV epidemic among the military population. Mr. Nthoiwa has helped to make SEKWATA a household name in military families. The campaign includes HIV testing and counseling, safe male circumcision and the distribution of camouflaged condoms. Thank you, Legodile.

Mr. Segolame Ramotlhwa may not be a construction worker, but he knows a thing or two about breaking down walls. Through his hard work, patience and extensive negotiation, Segolame has helped Botswana shed light on its key populations at highest risk for HIV – including female sex workers (FSW) and men who have sex with men (MSM). Segolame was appointed Chief of Party for the Botswana HIV-Most at Risk Populations Project implemented by RTI in 2008. This was the first key populations’ intervention in the country. Given the existing legal framework and policies regarding key populations in Botswana, and all the sensitivities surrounding the lifestyles and practices associated with these populations, it was challenging even to start conversation about these issues. Segolame’s exceptional leadership, humility and negotiation skills contributed to the success of this groundbreaking intervention. Thank you, Segolame.

Ms. Shenaaz El-Halabi, the Deputy Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health, has shown tireless commitment, passion and exemplary leadership in the response to HIV/AIDS in one of the hardest hit countries in the world. Ms. El-Halabi has forged a path towards more integrated health services for Botswana. She is dedicated to ensuring that HIV-affected patients throughout the country have access to TB services and that HIV testing and treatment is integrated into TB-services in all settings. She has been visionary in her efforts to integrate sexual and reproductive health services into routine care for HIV-infected women, regardless of where they seek services. And recognizing the disproportionate impact of cervical cancer on HIV-infected women, she has promoted the development of a comprehensive Cervical Cancer Strategic Plan that has served as the foundation for Botswana’s Pink Ribbon/Red Ribbon campaign. Ms. El Halabi has also convinced Botswana to place a strategic bet on “combination prevention” and is actively engaged in the development of the Botswana Combination Prevention Project, serving as a Principal Investigator. She is also an outspoken champion of breast-feeding for infants. Thank you, Shenaaz.

Themba Mguni is probably the most well-known refugee at the Dukwi Camp in northern Botswana. He has lived at the camp for nearly a decade, and has lived with HIV for more than 20 years. He uses his personal story of perseverance to convince other refugees to test for HIV and access treatment. Mr. Mguni is a proud war veteran of Zimbabwe who fled political violence in 2005. When he arrived at the Dukwi Camp, he noticed that HIV/AIDS stigma was a problem and there were few options for refugees who tested positive. Mr. Mguni eventually became a peer educator for Red Cross and uses his personal story to encourage other refugees to test for HIV and consider their health. Thank you, Themba.

Onkagetse (“Onks”) Present is our hero from Maun. He has reached more than 250 orphans and vulnerable children at Bana ba Letsatsi with vital interventions in psychosocial health, adolescent sexual and reproductive health, and financial literacy. He has also impacted about 2,000 children through outreach for volunteer organizations.  Most importantly, Onks has transformed the lives of about 150 young people living with HIV. Thank you, Onks.

Our heroes calendar ends in December with a well-known leader and HIV prevention advocate: His Excellency, Former President Festus Mogae. His visionary and outspoken leadership on HIV/AIDS issues both during and after his presidency has been unparalleled. Mr. Mogae has won international praise for his efforts to combat the HIV epidemic in Botswana. He was one of the first heads of state in the world to publically test for HIV. He brought the world’s attention to Botswana. And up until November of last year, he continued to serve as chairman of the Botswana National AIDS Council where he has raised awareness about the need for addressing key populations – including female sex workers and men who have sex with men. Thank you, Mr. Mogae.

That is the end of my list. I can imagine how difficult it was for PEPFAR to select just 12 heroes, but from the descriptions I have just read it is obvious that each of you has demonstrated courage, commitment, passion and dedication in serving Botswana and its communities affected by HIV/AIDS. I am humbled by your sacrifices to Botswana.

In 2015, each time we look at this calendar, your images and stories will inspire the rest of us to continue to work diligently towards an AIDS-free generation as individual agents of change. Again, thank you for your achievements and thank you for being here today.