Nicola Ritter plays in a league of his own – at the highest level – together with his 37 employees and 200 volunteers they make up the very exclusive group that gives of all their hearts to help the vulnerable – the prisoners – the homeless – the lonely. The common denominator is HIV and AIDS – to give support both in prevention and medically to those who have already developed the disease. I met Nicolas in the beginning of December 2013 at his office in Port Louis. I was greeted by a gentleman in his forties with great charisma (it is quite evident who his father is – Jacques Ritter – you can read more about his Crown Lodge under the heading “gems to discover”). When Nicolas was told that he was HIV-positive in 1994 he thought he had at the most five years to live. And what was he supposed to do these last years of his life – party around the clock? He came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t meaningful, even if it only was for a few years. He decided instead to help others in the same situation – a decision it is now twenty years since he took – and Nicolas is still very much alive and present! Nicolas showed me around PILS’s different units in Port Louis. There is a free “Hot Line” that has around 4000 calls per year. At the surgery, where you can go to be tested, have you wounds seen to or just talk for a while we meet Soobiraj – a registered nurse. Really also a doctor and psychologist – not on paper – but in his mind!
There are a few patients in the waiting room. Here all are equal and treated as guests. I meet one of PILS three field workers – who are worth their weight in gold – the job is taxing – among other things they visit prisons – and areas not even fit for animals. What struck me most during my visit to PILS is the hope – the will and the belief in the future among those who work there – nobody gives up – but there is a need for more funds – donations. Nicolas and I are about to leave Soobiraj to go to lunch, when a gaunt man enters. At that moment death felt very close – I can’t remember ever having such a want to take someone into my arms. The man smiles slightly when he sees Nicolas and the nurse. Let’s call him Chris, he’s 47. As so many others at PILS he has lead a rough life. Addicted to heroin at nineteen, jail, losing his job, jail again, complications due to HIV and Hepatitis C. Chris is heavily medicated, he is slowly recuperating but is still very weak. The process of his rehabilitation has started thanks to Soobiraj, Viray (PILS psychologist) and the time and effort of social and field workers. But all this is in vain unless his Hepatitis C, that is slowly killing him, can be managed. There are efficient remedies that could cure Chris, but they are too expensive, and Mauritius Ministry of Health isn’t willing to pay up.
I wanted to grab a phone and start calling – to fundraise. I didn’t do that, and I didn’t hug Chris either. So what then was my contribution? I had sold a few books the night before and donated the money from that sell, 4000 Rs which equals about 110 €. I gave five books to the sick at jail.
Do you realise how absurd it is – that so many volunteer to help their fellow men – and give their all to it – but those in power won’t pay for the medicine!
Below you’ll find links to how you can donate to this worthy organisation. Who knows if there are more of us maybe the powers that be will see fit to contribute …
I extend a warm welcome to Nicolas Ritter as my “guest of the month”
Founder and Executive Director of PILS, the main HIV &AIDS Organisation in Mauritius
When I learnt that I was living with HIV, I soon realized that there existed no structure to cater for the needs of people living with HIV in Mauritius neither on a medical or social aspect. At that time in 1994 I decided to put a hold on my current job and was compelled to go to Reunion Island to seek for treatment and proper care. There, I eventually met a few people from an NGO called RIVE (Réunion Immunodéprimé Vivre et Ecouter), who were (and still are) doing an excellent work for the wellbeing of people living with HIV and this neighboring island still extends its solidarity to the whole Indian Ocean region.
I could not figure out why there was no such organisation in my own country, while the need was so strongly felt and especially at a time where effective treatment combination was starting in United States and Europe. This was how PILS (Prévention Information Lutte contre le Sida) was born in 1996. To start off with we were only a group of friends and relatives, driven by a common vision for our island. Our aim was to break the silence around the disease and make it possible that HIV-positive people in the country have a better quality of life, with proper access to treatment and care and without any fear of being stigmatised and discriminated. We worked at first from my own house. It was the beginning of an exciting adventure! This could not have been possible without the incredible support I received from my family and friends. A special thanks to my dad Jacques and my mum, Odile.
Feeling so blessed and supported I decided in 2001 to talk openly about my HIV status. A way for me to say that I was no superman neither a Saint, just a normal kind of guy who, like millions of people around the world, is trying to face this virus. It was also a way to break the vicious circle of stigma and tell others that you can now expect to live a normal life if you go tested, have access to treatment and take them as it should be. I was at that time the first Mauritian to do so and thought that I might be experiencing some rejection, but was ready to pay the price., Nothing like that happened. I carried on my work and my life, without any negative effects and with the fantastic feeling of being just me.
PILS was created in a context of total denial of the existence of HIV in Mauritius. Since its creation, we have been concentrating our actions on prevention of new infections, support to people infected and affected by HIV and most of all strong advocacy for policy change in the field of quality of care and stigma reduction. Among the most urgent matters to tackle was the vital need for a proper medical treatment and biomedical follow up. Then the issue of reducing the level of transmission among people who inject drugs became preeminent. Behind the Rainbow there are also tragic inequalities and inappropriate laws that were and in some case are still fuelling the epidemic. The fight is not over yet!
The local press became one of our strong partners. With their help, PILS succeeded in mainstreaming HIV in the media, and putting HIV & AIDS in the health and political agenda. We also managed to build trust in grantees that supported our vision and work – Sidaction, Solidarite Sida, Fight Aids Monaco, The European Union and The Global Fund to Fight AIDS Tuberculosis and Malaria, to name a few. They are now reliable partners with whom we work.
The response to HIV has since then been taken on a totally different face and gradually some important measures were implemented to control the epidemic and mitigate its impact in the Mauritian and Rodriguan population, particularly among key affected populations. This resulted in a more structured response where PILS played a major role alongside the Mauritian Government, the local private sector and other local and international organisations.
Today PILS faces many challenges and still plays an important role in major changes in Mauritius regarding the situation of people living with HIV and Human Rights. PILS is an organisation whose voice is heard both at national and international level.
We recently joined an international coalition of high threshold community-based organisations, Coalition PLUS (www.coalitionplus.org) with whom we are working on exciting international projects.
Almost 18 years have gone by since the creation of PILS, and I feel like a parent who has seen his child grow up – still considering it as his baby while at the same time feeling proud of its evolution. This progress and growth was possible because so many people believed and still believe that HIV is not only a deadly virus but a powerful instrument of change in our society.