When the news reached us that our very own Billy Pick was retiring, there was a silence in the room and looking into people eyes it was obvious that not one person felt well prepared for that. I plucked out 6 plain pieces of paper from my notebook, shared them among the members present and asked them to write one or two things they have felt, learned and hoped they would never forget about Billy Pick. At the end of the exercise, we exchanged papers, read out one another’s impressions and synthesized that feedback.
Although none of the members had ever personally met our friend Billy Pick with exception of myself, who met him once during the Technical Temporally Duty Out on another Country (TDY) and thanks to the wonders of the digital social space there was no question, too many, Billy is and will always remain many things in many special ways. “I continue to be in awe of how he is always intentional in seeking to understand, connect with our community needs – listening with the heart, which is suggestive of something more than experience, perhaps if not he or any of his close friends or family once walked a similar journey grappling with multiple risks and intersecting vulnerabilities” one of the members shared. Another member brushed that possibility aside and maintained that his extraordinary commitment could be attributed to the training that left him well-grounded in social work mandate in relation to the pursuit of social justice, using creative participatory strategies to address social problems, challenging inequalities and appreciating diversity, the passion, the many years of training and expertise in a variety of fields.
If I could take you with me on a mental trip to my first interaction with Billy three years ago, we were divided into teams visiting particular PEPFAR supported sub-regions on a joint monitoring expedition of Key Population services in Uganda under the TDY arrangement from the PEPFAR Head Office. By beautiful coincidence, as one of the KP community representatives, I was assigned to the team with Billy Pick – USAID /PEPFAR Deputy Principal for (Ukraine, West Africa, Asia, Uganda and Vietnam) to travel to the Acholi and Lango Subregions under PEPFAR/USAID supported sites. While in transit, we had a great conversation with Billy and I must say, I was baffled by his spontaneous tact of questioning with genuine interest about AWAC and what contribution we were bringing to the table towards attaining and sustaining HIV /AIDS Epidemic Control. You could feel that awesome breath of encouragement and support sandwiched with that tactical push to rise to the requirement of viably dreaming bigger.
I remember coming back embarrassed from the field visit after having been thrown out of a particular hotspot in Gulu and while having a reflection on the unfortunate incident, Billy calmly asked what we could do to save ourselves similar embarrassment or dangerous experiences in the future. The Implementing Partner representatives and the rest of us could not overemphasize the importance of meaningfully involving, supporting and resourcing the sex workers’ community members in the area. He said “powerful! If we are to make headway, we must not work in parallel with communities but move together every step of the way. You were talking about the huge targets. I can tell you if communities are not involved, strengthened and resourced, there is no way you can achieve those huge numbers.” He further shared about the efficacy of the Social Network Strategy (SNS) strategy in the community and taught us how much strong community systems and structures if meaningfully structured in can go in registering efficiency gains in the quest for attaining and sustaining HIV and AIDS Epidemic control.
One year following that trip, touched by his genuine interest in the lived realities of our community, I asked him if it was OK to have him added to the AWAC Grassroot members’ WhatsApp group. He responded in the affirmative. That is how he officially joined our digital space and silently took a keen interest in what was being shared. That was around the same time we were grappling with the overwhelming impact of the COVID-19 lockdown. We were in a deep crisis, community members were starving, excluded from COVID -19 food relief support, being beaten, arrested and abused. Others were being blocked from accessing health facilities; http://www.peah.it/2020/10/8886/. Sex workers especially mothers were sharing audios, video clips and texts describing the unspeakable degree of distress they were going through. One of the members suggested we begin in our own small ways to mobilize emergence resources to send money to our sisters whose lives as well as those of their children were hanging in balance due to starvation. I remember, one mother stripping naked out of overwhelming distress and frustration of failing to get something to feed her starving children. The fundraising kicked off in a sluggish mode but suddenly, something strange happened that changed the momentum of the resource mobilization campaign. Billy Pick contributed USD$ 1000 (Ugx3,630,910) which generous gesture not only saved 73 families of female sex workers from dying of starvation but also to some extent ignited the spirit of contribution among members on the platform (While we may not rule out other factors, we feel the relationship between Billy’s contribution and the increase in the number of contributors must have been something more than a coincidence). The platform became more lively as other individuals and partner organizations also made their contributions. More individual sex workers pushed in their contribution, others who were shy of having their small contributions to as little as Ugx 1000 could collect the money until they get about Ugx 10,000 contributors and register it under one individual. We were amazed at how much help was coming in. That experience got the sex workers community more connected with Billy as a caring leader with great compassion but with exceptional ability to ignite others to creatively join in responding to community crises.
About three months later, Billy Pick shared with me that he wanted to offer US$ 2000 (Ugx 6,780,380) to the sex workers community but tasked us to have the community generate consensus on what most pressing need that contribution could most viably address. You won’t believe the degree of gratitude and excitement it brought to the community. Following several consultative meetings, the members resolved to use the money to construct an additional temporary safe space for sex workers with multiple risks and intersecting vulnerabilities with priority given to the adolescent girls surviving in sex workers’ settings and sex workers who use drugs. The structure was erected and a calendar was drawn providing for alternate days for both groups. As we speak, the structure serves 30 members at a time during their socio-economic resilience enhancement sessions. The adolescent’s girls surviving in sex work settings who have undergone life skills training, vocational training and financial management packages are more resilient, report the reduced level of distress, are more self-confident, report improved risk perception, have adopted tailored risk reduction and risk avoidance practices, have been enrolled and retained in PrEP care. Some can now afford to meet their accommodation, basic food and nutrition requirements while other reports fewer cases of intimate partner violence.
On behalf of the sex workers’ community and the key population fraternity in Uganda, we want to appreciate PEPFAR for all the generous support to us and for having enabled Billy Pick to come into our space. His footprints will always stay with us. For having truly cared about all who come into his space and for his unwavering kindness, love and wisdom shared especially among the marginalized. We can’t thank him enough. If it’s our hope that perhaps life may bring us into each other’s space once again. That said, with all the honour and gratitude difficult to express, we take this moment to celebrate and congratulate him upon his golden years of service and well-deserved retirement. At the dawn of his new chapter in life, we wish him joy, good health, an enduring sense of contentment in the invaluable difference he has made to humanity and all the success in his fresh endeavours.
With love from the Alliance of Women Advocating for Change (AWAC)
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