Bernadette Bambule Yaleko, DRC (Congo): My Story


After becoming HIV positive in the early 90s, Bernadette focused her efforts on helping others in the same shoes

After becoming HIV positive in the early 90s, Bernadette focused her efforts on helping others in the same shoes


“Fifteen years ago, HIV meant you were going to die. At the time, I was working children orphaned because of AIDS. My work brought me into contact with a lot of women whose  experience of the virus was very direct; their husbands had died of AIDS, they were going to die, and often their children would too.

They were severely stigmatised. Other women would point at them. There was a feeling of absolute despair.

My own husband had died of AIDS two years previously, in 1992. I was, and of course still am, living with HIV, and was also stigmatised. My children were often left to play alone.

We decided to form a small group. Most of the women were very young. Maybe the edest was 30. They saw no way out of their situations. In the beginning, there were maybe a dozen of us, getting together to share our experiences at a member’s house each Saturday. Each of us took a small fish, a bit of rice, some vegetables, whatever we could bring to the meeting. We sat together. Someone was in charge of cooking, and it was a day of sharing.

The most important moment was when we told what AIDS had brought to our lives. The whole group listened attentively, and at the end we asked who could best support the person we were listening to.

The majority of sharings were sad stories. There was a lot of bitterness. Friends, family, people we used to help were now rejecting us. Many felt very isolated.

On each of these occasions, we would listen and try to give advice. And then we would sing hymns. I would say those were the best times of our lives at that time, to be together to sing and to share.

Our basic aim was to help the women assume their positive status with dignity. For us, that meant being able to live in harmony with yourself, with the people around you.

Life for these women was very isolated, and a common reaction for them was to become angry because friends, neighbours and often family had turned their backs on them.

We convinced our members not to fear living alone, to resist the urge to find another husband. We helped them realise that when they died, these new husbands might seek to marry their sisters or daughters, meaning that AIDS would always surround their family.

Outwardly, the aim of our group was to be accepted so that the women could take part in com-munity life again, have rights to work and justice.

Things grew very quickly. Some of the members agreed to volunteer to share their experiences openly with the community. They appeared on TV, marking the first time in Congo that someone had said, yes, I am HIV positive. They had nothing to gain but the chance to help others in the same situation.

We had many very positive reactions. The feeling was that we had started something powerful. We started to receive support that enabled us to grow to help more people, and we got more and more members.

Today, our organisation supports about 21,000 people right around Congo, and we are pre-sent in eight out of 11 provinces in the country, with 250 employees and 2,500 volunteers.

Now we have three different kinds of intervention: psychosocial care and support; prevention, where members give advice; and advocacy.

I have received European ambassadors’ wives at our Kinshasa headquarters. They are always impressed, and ask which international organisation started us off. I say, what do you mean? I tell them that God gave us this grace. We had nothing, only our hearts to give.

But I am old now, and I have started to feel tired. I have lived with this virus for a long time. At 62, I probably only have two or three years to live, and I have a lot of stress. What will happen to this vision? I started this when I was 45. My regret is that I wasn’t 45 now and I could do so much more.

We now work with young people and schools, and there is lots of potential for using the No Strings Kibing! films in our organisation. Perhaps the most exciting thing for me is the idea of involving national television.

We would do exactly on television what we have done here, and show the films to a live audience. After watching, we can do activities we have developed here to discuss the messages in greater detail.

I think it would be really revolutionary in Congo, as there is no television education. It would be good to choose two or three schools, and bring them to the studio so that each group explores one of the films’ messages like we did in this No Strings workshop here in Nairobi. Then we will have reactions and debate and bring it into real life.

The films are something that help children really think about their lives and the problems they face. They are a wonderful tool.”