THE BLOG

Fanta Ongoiba: Toronto's Passionate Advocate Who Is Making Headways

04/29/2013 05:31 EDT | Updated 06/29/2013 05:12 EDT

The lakeside village of Port Stanton is an almost two hours' drive away from Toronto. Located near the City of Orillia, ON -- the seaside cottage community is beautiful and breathtaking. It is no surprise most groups and individuals continue to choose this destination to host their great milestones regularly.

One of Toronto's leading activist HIV / AIDS agency - Africans in Partnership Against HIV/AIDS (APAA) -- was its latest guest this past weekend. The group was hosting its board and employees retreat and those that attended had pushed the resort to an almost full capacity for a not so warm weekend.

With a bold mission of reducing "the spread of HIV/AIDS infection within African Canadian communities and to enhance the quality of life of African Canadian people living with or affected by" -- APAA has been fighting against shoe string budget and unique perspectives to have a real impact in Toronto's black communities. Located inside a windowless aging borrowed space in down town Toronto -- its work and efforts has been noted and praised by many.

One of its signature contributions for instance is its pioneering work with religious groups and leaders to address the stigma of the disease. For instance last year, it hosted a highly successful gathering of Toronto's Islamic communities with a program titled -- "Islamic Education & Awareness Forum for discussing HIV/AIDS" with TARIC Islamic Centre. As speaker -- APAA invited an Imam from Southern Ontario as a speaker- Dr Munir Elkassem - who told the hundreds in the audience how - "you should look at individuals and leave judgment to the creator". Indeed.

With public health nurses, a family doctor and religious leaders at hand -- its Executive Director Fanta Ongoiba -- expressed the stigma and how the AIDS epidemic can be bitten and how she wants to live in a world where what she does is no longer needed. In the meantime, Ongoiba told the audience, "We believe that a supportive environment is essential to the well-being of people living with HIV/AIDS as well as their partners, family and friends." True.

Ongoiba was also a visible supporter of Bill C-398 -- Canada's generic-drug bill to help produce and distribute cheap lifesaving cheaper HIV medications for resource-constrained

nations. She worked with the Somali Canadian superstar Keinan Abdi Warsame AKA - K'Naan and one time UN-AIDS Special envoy on HIV / AIDS in Africa, Stephen Lewis, to drum up support. Unfortunately -- the bill was defeated over patent protection concerns and interests.

At the retreat that demands her attention wherever she goes -- by lunch time Ongoiba has had a hefty busy time and it seems she has achieved much. She has been on her feet since 5 AM welcoming a volunteer who came to record the gathering, coordinated the successful participation of her group in an HIV / AIDS charity run in Toronto and gave a keynote like speech that she promised to be for two minutes yet ended up being "17 and half minutes" as one attendee later joked. She has even charmed a long-time admirer to donate to her own personal pledge to the walk via social media surpassing her personal goal.

Her almost twenty minutes long presentation gave a glimpse of her own efforts and the history of the group as it gets ready to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Her future agenda, she says, includes being self-sufficient and visible in the community even more. She also spoke of how she used to volunteer at bingo halls until 4 AM in order to benefit from the bingo's charity donations for APAA. For a French speaking woman who has been up in earnest - in her imperfect English, beautiful African dress and signature passion -- she is eloquent to a fault.

By noon -- everyone attending the retreat is present for lunch except Ongoiba. Like a celebrity - she has been swarmed by the receptionists as well as guests as she was on her way in. They admire her African dress that traces her roots to Mali and her many types of jewellery. One of the receptionists even touches one of her bracelets and admires it.

Ongoiba quickly takes one of the jewelry and she places it on the receptionist left hand and tells her - "Welcome to Africa". This is Ongoiba's way of engaging the receptionist to her biography making her advocacy personable. The receptionist refuses but Ongoiba is too convincing and charming to not get her way even when she is giving a part of her belonging to others in the hope of making new friends.

Then a long conversation begins about APAA's work as well as how anyone can get involved in the

HIV prevention, care and education efforts. As Ongoiba leaves -- the reception tells her colleagues how her church might be able to get involved. It seems Ongoiba has won a potential supporter to an important and urgent cause.

As Ongoiba enters the restaurant -- it seems she has made a strong impression on the receptionists as the owners and the Chef come to offer the attendees their appreciation for the work they are all involved in. As they leave -- one participant whispers how "everyone is friendly in this town." The attendee did not know that it was Ongoiba that had given them the foundation to be uniquely nice to the group.

It seems Ongoiba is on a mission to bring new and old friends to her cause. She is on a personal crusade; it seems, to help change a human reality and becoming an effective advocate in the process. It is no wonder that her adopted city recently awarded her with the Access, Equity and Human Rights Awards.