Hlengiwe "LEO" MCHUNU
AFRICA · South Africa
Fighting the silent killer HIV/AIDS
Hlengiwe ‘Leo’ Mchunu’s (43) journey toward becoming recognized as ‘Mama Africa’ in her community began on two levels: first, the personal level of losing almost all of her eight brothers and sisters to AIDS; second, with two little orphan girls. When walking through her rural village of Qudeni, Leo saw two girls (ages 3 and 5) sitting abandoned by a near empty food pot, un-washed, and terrified. Leo kept walking, but only as far as it took her to go back to her house, grab a washbasin, a set of clean clothes, and then return to care for these two AIDS orphans. Too many people would have kept walking as a result of the stigma directed against those affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Orphaned children became the catalyst for Leo’s Imizamo chèche project (Zulu meaning ‘we are trying’), and future philanthropic efforts for fighting HIV/AIDs. Leo personally contributed her own meager resources to fund her fledgling Imizamo project. Leo’s list of efforts to improve her community are poignant: she began a community campaign to provide/care for more than 350 orphans, provide food and job training for care-givers and older orphans, called the first meeting in Qudeni on AIDS, converted two old classrooms into a kitchen and a daycare center to begin the Imizamo project that protects approximately 100 orphans and works for roughly a dozen largely HIV positive volunteers, made deals with local principles to allow orphaned children back into school without paying fees or wearing uniforms, launched income generating projects for grandmothers and older girls (ex. quilting and beadwork), received land to plant community gardens, and began workshops for alcoholism amongst grandmothers. In the future Leo hopes to construct fences to protect community gardens and convert an old building in the village into a daycare hospice so that those dying of AIDS can die in comfort and dignity. Mindful of the future, Leo advocates for members of the community to attend the local clinic for treatment of AIDS. Now, even after the affects of a devastating tornado and wildfire, Imizamo is helping Qudeni, and the young lives it sustains, flourish.