April 01, 2010 | Myrna Anderson

Throughout her life, Amy Patterson has worked in Senegal, taught in Ghana and studied AIDS advocacy in Zambia.

Throughout her life, Amy Patterson has worked in Senegal, taught in Ghana and studied AIDS advocacy in Zambia.

Patterson, a Calvin professor of political science, will return to Zambia in January, 2011, for six months of research as a Fulbright Scholar, funded through the African Regional Research Program. She will be studying Christian and secular HIV support groups in that country.

Support and empowerment

"I’m just really intrigued by the role of these AIDS organizations and what they mean for their members in terms of their members’ empowerment,” she said.

Approximately 15 percent of Zambia’s population is HIV-positive, Patterson said. If that percentage of Calvin’s roughly 4,000-student population were HIV-positive, she hazarded, it would mean that 600 students would have the virus. In Zambia, which has a population of 12 million people, approximately two million people are infected by HIV.

"Probably a good number of that 15 percent don’t know they’re HIV-positive—until something happens.” she said of the Zambian situation. “They get sick and take an AIDS test. Or they get pregnant, and they’re getting prenatal care, and they take an AIDS test and find out they’re HIV-positive.

Support in many forms

Zambians diagnosed with the virus need many forms of support, Patterson said. “They’ve found out they have this disease for which there is no cure. They might be stigmatized because they have this disease.” And when those who test positive fall sick and are unable to work or take care of their children, she said, they need more material forms of support.

Patterson first traveled to Zambia in 2007 to research with Calvin student and McGregor Scholar Kyla Vander Hart (After she graduated in 2008, Vander Hart returned to that country to work for the International Justice Mission.)

Now Patterson will be studying how HIV support groups such as the Network of Zambian Living with AIDS, Circles of Hope and others empower their members emotionally, socially and politically.

Some of the groups are church-based, and some are not, and Patterson believes they are beginning to move beyond meeting members’ immediate needs into things like community mobilization and AIDS advocacy. “They seemed to give people more hope, more power, more courage …,” she said.

She said one reason for Zambia’s new direction in HIV support may be access to medication. Of the $18 billion that has been channeled into HIV prevention and treatment in AIDS-ravaged nations since President George W. Bush established the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief in 2003, $1.1 billion has gone to Zambia.

Living longer and better

"I think more and more people are getting drugs and living,” Patterson said. “People on ARVs (antiretroviral drugs) can live a long time. In the U.S., AIDS is a chronic condition because they have access to ARVs.” The combination of medication and support is effecting a transformation for HIV-infected Zambians, she believes, adding: “We will see if my impression is borne out after six months of research.”

Calvin political science professor Bill Stevenson is impressed by the research his colleague has already done. “She is increasingly recognized— and this Fulbright is evidence of it—as an international scholarly authority on the politics of AIDS in Africa. And she has spent a good deal of time in African countries; she has a great love for Africa. For her to be able to do what she does on site is a tremendous opportunity.”

This February, Patterson won Calvin’s first-ever Advising and Mentoring Award, in part because of the work she has done mentoring students in Calvin’s Model UN program. “She’s a tremendous young scholar and a great teacher,” Stevenson said.

Patterson will be based at the University of Zambia in Lusaka during her African sojourn, and her family—husband Neil and daughters Sophia and Isabel—will be with her.  

"Africa has special meaning to me,” she said. She met Neil when they were Peace Corps volunteers in Senegal, right out of college. “Africa has taught me much about my faith, humanity, human decency, human resilience and creativity, and the vast diversity of God's creation.”

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