OUR STORY

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SSF Founding Director, Dr. Dennis Willms, and sons (Luke and Mark) with niece Heidi
— boarding Air Zimbabwe flight to Entebbe, Uganda circa July 1993. 

 


How did Salama SHIELD Foundation come into being?

 

It is an interesting story, and one that emerged out of a plot line of some urgency in the context of a global challenge. It was about HIV/AIDS, and what to do about it at the apex of its devastation on vulnerable and at-risk populations primarily living in Sub-Saharan Africa.

It began this way:

Dennis Willms, Ph.D., (Founding Director, Salama SHIELD Foundation), at that time an Associate Professor in the Department of Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics (CE&B), Faculty of Medicine, McMaster University, was challenged by Dr. Nelson Sewankambo, an Ugandan colleague and Rockefeller Foundation fellow studying for his M.Sc. at McMaster University, with this:

What should I do about my people? I do not understand why they are getting infected in large numbers by this unknown disease?

The disease was HIV infection, which when untreated resulted in AIDS and a predictable death. Many persons in Uganda were dying of this disease popularly known as “slims”, which sadly resulted in the abrogation of social responsibility to care for young and old alike. “Why bother”, they said to us, when “we are all dying and getting finished!”

At that time, Dr. Sewankambo was, together with his medical colleagues and research partners in Uganda, the first clinical researchers to diagnose this new disease then prevalent in Uganda (HIV/AIDS). Slims would later be known as HIV/AIDS, a disease that ravaged Lyantonde and Rakai Districts in Uganda, which at the time, was believed to be the epicentre of the pandemic globally. This is the troubled and concerning place where Salama SHIELD Foundation began its storied involvement in health and development.

Dr. Dennis Willms secured funding, together with Dr. Nelson Sewankambo, to conduct research on the behavioral determinants of risk for HIV transmission. Over many years, their team collected a massive behavioral and ethnographic data base on HIV/AIDS. While funded to elicit this diagnostic and anthropological knowledge, they could not secure funding from the usual academic sources to translate what they had discovered into programs that were responsive to the needs of those most at-risk and vulnerable to HIV.

Under the advice and professional assistance of Mr. E. Blake Bromley (Canada’s pre-eminent charities lawyer), we established the Salama SHIELD Foundation in 1992. It was at this “tipping point” in our development story in Lyantonde. We needed toact on what we were learning , and the funds to develop evidence-driven programs.

The goal and mission of SSF was to be a research-driven non-government organization (NGO) that translated scientific evidence and indigenous knowledge into programs that met the practical, emotion, and therapeutic needs of those groups most vulnerable to acquiring HIV/AIDS.
Salama SHIELD Foundation is registered as a charitable organization in Malawi, Uganda, and Canada (Registration Number: 89062 7672 RR0001).

Today, more than 20 years after its humble beginnings in Uganda and Zimbabwe, Salama SHIELD Foundation’s participatory methodologies remain in many ways unchanged and relevant to addressing the development challenges of Sub-Saharan Africa. We seek to nurture knowledge, break down structurally violent barriers, and advance programs that provide “hope with a plan”. A Foundation that was once centred on HIV prevention alone has moved beyond this disease-specific focus to address the broad-based determinants of health. It has improved the lives of tens of thousands through its programs in food security, micro-credit revolving loans, water, education, and health.

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