By Danielle Vella
Photos by Malcolm Linton
A suspected AIDS patient rests in bed at her home in Masogo, a village in a part of Kenya where many are HIV-infected but few acknowledge it because of the stigma. "Our main planning is now about how to expand a home-based care program, having a professional team working with trained, motivated volunteers," says Fr. Gerry Whelan, SJ, from Ireland, pastor of Kangemi Parish in Nairobi.
The next time you come, bring presents, and please pray that when you return, I'm still alive," an African woman with AIDS asks Fr. Michael Czerny, SJ, with what he describes as mingled humor, hope, and sadness. The occasion: his visit to a Jesuit-sponsored health center in an African slum.
Czerny has countless stories like this to tell. Coordinator of the recently set-up African Jesuit Aids Network (AJAN), the Canadian Jesuit travels throughout Africa, visiting Jesuits working against AIDS in 27 countries. AJAN aims to draw their endeavors together to develop a social ministry rooted in those who suffer.
"The first steps are to appreciate what is already being done and to bind the patchwork of efforts into a network that speaks in one voice," explains Czerny.
Fighting a war against AIDS is not easy. The magnitude of the pandemic in Africa is staggering. An overload of statistics -- serving to numb the world into further neglect of the problem -- depicts a galloping infection rate: in 2002, 70 percent of people with AIDS worldwide lived in Africa. In addition, the continent experienced 2.4 million AIDS-related deaths that year, slashing life expectancy to 39 years in some countries.
"Today's plague of HIV/AIDS is an enormous social and cultural issue of exclusion and injustice," says Czerny.
Many Jesuits in Africa see the devastating effects of HIV/AIDS on a daily basis. Canadian-born Fr. John Doyle, SJ, chaplain at Lusaka's University Teaching Hospital in Zambia, writes: "Today as I maneuvered my old VW down a potholed street, I was reminded of the scourge. The short street was the length of two city blocks, and there were two funerals. My conjecture was the deaths were the result of AIDS."
The move to adopt a vigorous strategy to fight AIDS started at a meeting of Jesuits in South Africa in 2000 and came to fruition later that year in Spain at a meeting of Jesuit provincials at which African provincials voiced concerns about the plight of their countries. Jesuit superior general Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, SJ, noted that "although the Society's involvement is already quite significant, we need to try to do more." A plan approved in 2002 by the Jesuit superiors of Africa and Madagascar became AJAN's blueprint.
The network found fertile ground with which to work just in the initiatives already underway in the hands of ten Jesuits working full time and at least 60 working part time in AIDS ministry in sub-Saharan Africa.
"And that sixty is an interim approximation as we continue to discover ways in which other Jesuits are responding," says Czerny.
The projects AJAN discovered included care for those infected, research programs, and advocacy efforts, all of which had started as individual Jesuits responded to urgent needs around them. One, for instance, is the Jesuit Solidarity Fund in Uganda, set up in 1992 by the late Canadian Fr. Edouard Trudeau, SJ, with help from fellow Canadian Jesuit John Legge and U.S. Jesuit Eugene Hattie, to provide for orphans of AIDS victims. Another project for orphans and children with HIV/AIDS is Nyumbani Village in Kenya, run by U.S. Jesuit Fr. Angelo D'Agostino, SJ.
In some places AIDS work had been incorporated in the overall Jesuit mission. At Kangemi Parish in Nairobi, small Christian communities reach out to people with AIDS. "Sick calls and funerals keep us busy," says pastor Fr. Gerry Whelan, SJ, from Ireland. "Our main planning is now about how to expand a home-based care program, having a professional team working with trained, motivated volunteers."
Several Jesuits engage daily with people with AIDS in the course of their work. Doyle says about his hospital ministry: "Some ask for financial help for food, medicine, transport home, even when there is little life left in the body. I help those in need and am continually on the lookout for contributions to render assistance. I feel challenged; I'm old and cannot climb the stairs as I used to in my effort to visit many patients. Yet when I'm called to a bedside, I forget my problems and focus on the patient."
AJAN has given a psychological boost to Jesuits doing AIDS work by showing them they belong to a bigger picture. "How has AJAN helped existing projects?" asks Czerny. "I'd say by encouragement. One Jesuit said: 'Before I felt out on the edge, doing good work but unrelated to what Jesuits are really about. After an AJAN visit, I see our project at the heart of the Society's mission in Africa. I'm happy to redouble my efforts.' "
Mr. Jocelyn McCalla, a consultant from the United States who contributed extensively to AJAN's inception, agreed: "African Jesuits have on the whole involved themselves in the fight against AIDS on an individual basis. AJAN seeks a coordinated response, informed by lessons that one learns and can share with others in the same struggle."
Jesuits in AIDS ministry are sharply aware of the challenges at hand. Addressing the launch of AJAN, Fr. Shirima Valerian, SJ, from Tanzania, called AIDS "the biggest threat to the survival of the African peoples after the slave trade." McCalla's visits have convinced him of the urgency of immediate action. "Seeing children in Nyumbani orphanage whose lives will probably be cut short by AIDS brings home the point that unless something is done now, very little progress can be expected in the future."
A sick woman sits at home with her son at a housing project for people with AIDS. "Congolese have always believed in witchcraft," Fr. Jacques Bakewma, SJ, who runs a center for orphans, told a British reporter, "but, traditionally we identified only old men and women as witches." He has witnessed a societal change: children with AIDS are now considered to be possessed. "Now we are turning on our children."
How can the proliferation of AIDS in Africa be checked? Doling out condoms and drug cocktails will not be enough.
"AIDS spreads faster in the slums of Nairobi, Soweto, or Lome not because people are careless," says McCalla. "Grinding poverty, misinformation, and inequality between men and women combine to make AIDS a social problem rather than simply a medical problem that will be resolved through applied technology. There's no doubt wealthy countries need to make a greater commitment to AIDS research. Having said that, however, we must understand that HIV's vitality is intimately connected to the degree to which social ills remain unaddressed."
Africa's inherent poverty and instability fuel the AIDS virus. Asked about the toughest part of his job, Fr. Ted Rogers, SJ, from England, who does AIDS prevention among youth in Zimbabwe, had a long list: "Lack of resources; working with endemic shortages of food, fuel, finance, medication for our people in need, and electric power cuts." People with AIDS in underdeveloped countries cannot afford desperately needed nutrition much less antiretroviral drugs that are the life support of infected people in the West. "This is why 3,800 people per week die of AIDS-related diseases in this country," says Rogers.
Adds Doyle: "I anguish over the AIDS crisis. What bothers me most is a person contracting the virus in the West can expect to live ten to fifteen years, while someone in our country has far less time."
Even if medication were available, people would be reluctant to access it because oppressive secrecy and shame still shroud AIDS in spite of widespread campaigns to bring the problem out in the open. Doing away with stigmatization is vital, says Rogers, adding that this can only happen if people with AIDS are persuaded to "come out" and to accept their disease.
Whelan agrees that the stigma surrounding AIDS is profound. In his mind the deepest anguish of its victims, apart from physical suffering, arises from isolation and a sense of shame. "We often meet people only at the last stage of their illness." Another target in the offensive against AIDS is challenging high-risk behaviors and traditions. Promoting abstinence and fidelity, as opposed to polygamy still practiced by some men, is key. Another traditional setback is that women are considered subservient, a perception hard to change.
A girl holds her baby sister at the edge of a sugarcane field in South Africa's Kwazulu-Natal province, one of the world's worst AIDS hotspots where AIDS has left many children without parents. Thirty percent of babies in the country are born HIV positive and will die within two years. Some lucky ones will find their way to the Jesuit-run Nazareth House in Cape Town, which has been caring for children with HIV/AIDS since 1992.
"Forming value-based communities is a major way to achieve behavior change," says Whelan. "Up to 300 youth are active in our groups. The message about AIDS is always given, but it has to be done obliquely, as they are overdosed with information about AIDS."
In Zimbabwe, the government has joined the Church in stressing lifestyle change rather than advocating condoms as a solution. The message is getting across. "For a growing number of youths, we are talking of 'behavior maintenance' as they are still virgins," says Rogers. Over the last year, the infection rate among youths in Zimbabwe and other countries, including Uganda, has decreased.
Despite success stories, the odds sometimes seem stacked against a victory over the virus.
"We are doing such a relatively small amount to respond to the size of this problem," laments Whelan. But the Jesuits are definitely giving it their best shot, together with lay people whose dedication spurs them on.
"My main feeling for these lay people is admiration," Whelan continues. "The solidarity of people, especially in suffering, gives me hope, as does their ability to celebrate, not least in liturgy."
Rogers has similar words of praise for his young coworkers: "They are keen to live positive lives and to help others. They support orphans by raising money, by giving them love and hope."
After nearly a year of heading AJAN, Czerny dares to be a bit optimistic: "What most blocks people from responding to HIV/AIDS is fear, and fear is only overcome with time and with the help of someone who takes you by the hand and brings you into an AIDS situation where you discover that Christ is already there. "So despite the horrendous damage already done and the frightful predictions, I believe time is on the Church's side in responding more and more effectively and inclusively."