The Mpukunyoni Traditional Council officially welcomed new Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI) Director, Professor Willem Hanekom, to the Mpukunyoni traditional authority area at an event on Thursday, 5 December.

AHRI works hand-in-hand with traditional structures in its health and demographic surveillance and health intervention area in uMkhanyakude District in northern KwaZulu-Natal. AHRI partners closely with the Mpukunyoni Traditional Council to ensure that its research can best serve neighbouring communities. The Council is led by uNdunankulu (Premier) Mkhwanazi and is made up of 30 izinduna (Headmen).

The welcome event, which was hosted at the Mpukunyoni Traditional Council Court, also served as the Council’s farewell to AHRI’s previous Director, Professor Deenan Pillay, who has stepped down to resume his role as Professor of Virology at UCL.

“We are so grateful for the partnership between AHRI and the Traditional Council,” said Bishop Mkhwanazi, who was speaking on behalf of uNdunankulu Mkhwanazi. “We give a big thank you to Deenan Pillay, who worked so well with us. We pledge our support also to work well with Willem Hanekom.”

Speaking on behalf of the Traditional Council, Induna Mkhwanazi from Ophaphazi commented that the Council should be proud to have an organisation like AHRI based in Mpukunyoni. “We are grateful for the work you have done for us, and for our children,” he said. “We welcome you, Professor Hanekom, and we give you a very fond farewell, Professor Pillay.”

Prof Hanekom thanked the Council for the kind and generous welcome, and acknowledged the phenomenal work done by Prof Pillay and his team at AHRI over the past six years. “Some of the recently published results of this work show, for example, an incredible decrease in the incidence of HIV over the past few years. I think we owe Prof Pillay and the entire AHRI team an incredible thank from all of us; not just here in KwaZulu-Natal but also globally, for what you’ve done for the understanding of HIV and making progress on HIV.”

“Going forward, I am looking forward to the job and the work here at AHRI,” he added. “I think it is absolutely clear that the work can only be done with extensive engagement with the community, and I will be knocking on your door a lot to get your advice.”

Pictured are (back row, l-r) AHRI COO, Raynold Zondo, AHRI Director Prof Willem Hanekom, outgoing AHRI Director Prof Deenan Pillay, Bishop Mkhwanazi – representing uNdunankulu Mkhwanazi – and (front row, l-r) Induna Gumede from Myeki, Induna Mkhwanazi from Khula Village, and Induna Mkhwanazi from Ophaphazi.