Voluntary Counsellor Takes Life-changing Trip To The US


Magdalene Blankenberg, who hails from Cloetesville in the Western Cape, in Washington D.C. with Zambian community member, Lombe Kabanda. They were representing their countries ahead of a five-year research study in South Africa and Zambia aimed at reducing the rate of HIV.

A volunteer trauma counsellor from Cloetesville near Stellenbosch has returned home from a visit to the United States determined to help people who are HIV-positive.

Magdalene Blankenberg recently spent a week in Washington DC in the US attending a workshop to help members of the community understand the process taken by researchers in testing new drugs to treat HIV.

“It was a very new experience for me, but I learnt so much. It’s encouraged me to speak to young girls at school and people in the community about the importance of getting tested and treated for HIV,” Blankenberg said.

Blankenberg was the only South African community member to attend the workshop during the annual meeting of the HIV Prevention Trials Network (HPTN) and was selected through a random draw organised by the Desmond Tutu TB Centre (DTTC) at Stellenbosch University.

News of the trip generated great excitement in the Cloetesville community.

“Two farewell parties were held for me. I had breakfast with the Speaker and councillors from the Stellenbosch town council. I was nervous as I was the first person in my family to fly in a plane. But it all went so well.”

Blankenberg’s involvement in the workshop is considered extremely important, as the DTTC has launched a five-year research study, together with its Zambian and US counterparts, to help prevent the spread of HIV.

Nine communities throughout the Western Cape, as well as 12 from Zambia, will be involved in the trial. Community health workers will be visiting many people over the next few years, providing voluntary HIV counseling and testing and helping people who test HIV positive to access health care.

The study is the largest ever HIV prevention study on a community level to be conducted worldwide and is considered very exciting and significant that it will be carried out in Africa.

Blankenberg says she’s energised about the prospect of helping to train community advisory boards about the study.

“It’s important for people to realize how research can help people in the community.  I want to be a voice in the community. I want people to know that HIV can be treated…that there is help and that they should get medication.”

Community health officer from the DTTC, Nozizwe Makola, has embraced Blankenberg’s attitude.

“Communities are the driving force behind successful clinical trials. If you empower communities, you get better results. We all need to help each other to tackle HIV.”

Blankenberg says she feels fortunate to have been drawn to go to the US, but her colleagues at the Cloetesville police station, where she volunteers as a trauma counsellor, say she fully deserves it.

The single mother is unemployed but has dedicated her life to counseling victims of domestic abuse and rape.

She is often called out by the police in the middle of the night to counsel rape victims, and goes the extra mile for her community. Her home has also become a refuge for many abused women over the years, who stop by for advice and a shoulder to cry on.