Harare Zimbabwe


HIV and AIDS: Still a Priority in the Church Mission

From the early 1980’s to the 1990’s, HIV/AIDS was not so much a reality to most of the people as it is today. By then, the question of HIV/AIDS sounded more like a myth. Many theories were articulated for it saying that it was God’s punishment for immoral behaviour. It (HIV/AIDS) was something that affected others. And we did not believe much in it. Life continued and little did we know that HIV/AIDS was here to stay, that the disease would be there 25 or more years later to the present day. Yes, HIV/AIDS is a reality in our lives. It has affected the entire human family. It has taken members of our families. It is no longer a myth. This paper attempts to talk of the reality of HIV and AIDS and to suggest that the Church should continue to take this pandemic as one of the priorities in her mission.

The Reality of HIV and AIDS
HIV/AIDS continues to threaten every facet of human development and existence. Being involved in some pastoral work, I have come to the realization that the escalation of HIV/AIDS seems to continue frightening people in the various communities. While it is true that some communities are experiencing the decrease in the number of new HIV/AIDS cases, I would say that the pandemic continues to be one of the main challenges that require great attention by the international community, each government and all the Churches. This pandemic is swallowing people!

Some ten years ago, the Catholic Bishops of Kenya commented on the reality of HIV and AIDS as they said:
“HIV and AIDS leaves no person unaffected, no heart unmoved, no nation unshaken. We therefore wish to affirm our solidarity with you our people in these days when sorrow, fear and a sense of helplessness, and of having been totally abandoned, grip many households.”

The 13th International AIDS Conference held in Durban, South Africa (9th – 14th July, 2000) which included the Religious Leaders acknowledged that:“HIV and AIDS has invaded the Body of Christ.” The leaders further admitted that, “AIDS is no longer the disease of only the prostitutes or the truck drivers, it is among us, the clergy, and the laity alike and other “less at risk” members of the society.”

The point from the above two quotations is simple. HIV/AIDS has penetrated into each every sector. It has shaken each every community by either being affected or infected. It is the concern of the entire human race. John Waliggo, a theologian from Uganda, describes HIV and AIDS as a global concern requiring the cooperation and participation of each and every person. True to this is the popular opinion of some experts:

HIV/AIDS has entered into the general population, infecting men, women, and children, regardless of race, colour, country, or religion. It is the number one killer of men and women in New York City who are between the ages of twenty and forty-nine years. Babies born with HIV/ AIDS are increasing in number.

About five years ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) described HIV/AIDS as the fourth leading cause of death worldwide and the leading cause of death in sub-Sahara Africa.

The Truth about the Reality of HIV/AIDS
While doing some pastoral work in the Archdiocese of Blantyre in Malawi (2001-2005), a woman came to me asking for a memorial mass at her place. We arranged the date for mass. Going there for the mass, I was given a list of names of people who had died. The list had eight names on it. I asked the lady who these people were. She looked at me and said, “The first name on the list is my husband, the rest are my children.” I asked again if she had any other remaining children and she said, “You are my only child. You priests are our children,” she continued and said, “You are my child.”

I said the mass and later on we went to the graveyard. There at the cemetery the graves of her husband and the eight children were in one line, one after the other. All of them had died within five years from 1999 to 2005. At the end of the unveiling of the tomb stones, I asked the woman, “What keeps you alive?” She said, “My faith.” With her is a dozen of many orphans which she has to look after. This is the common and challenging aspect of this pandemic. It has created an enormous problem of orphans who are to be looked after by their grandparents.

Going to South Africa in 2005, I encountered the same reality of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. After the defeat of apartheid in 1994, HIV/AIDS seemed to be a new great challenge to the South African society. As South Africans normally bury their dead on weekends I was shocked by the number of people buried each weekend in and around Pietermaritzburg – Kwa Zulu-Natal. On one weekend I went to bury one young person who had died from HIV/AIDS related disease. I was amazed at the number of funerals on that particular day. The cemetery was full of many people. It was not even easy to properly conduct the burial rites as there was a lot of noise.

Such a scenario is common in many other places in South Africa. I remember one Zulu woman commenting to me after the burial of her daughter, “Father, there is no home within our vicinity that has not been visited by this modern disease, meaning HIV/AIDS. This disease is crippling our families. It is deadly. Our children are dying. Father we are occupied by funerals every weekend.”

Coming here to Zimbabwe in 2007, I noted again how this pandemic continues to weaken the society. The first instance was when I attended the funeral of the wife of a friend of mine. His wife had died of an AIDS-related illness. When we went to the graveyard, I got a shock to see the number of new graves. I was afraid to count the graves, but one noticeable thing was the number of graves of people who had died from January to April of that year. These graves seemingly numbered up to fifty.

Stigmatization of Persons Living with HIV/AIDS As I started getting involved in some pastoral ministry, especially visiting the sick in some areas of Harare I have come to understand another reality of HIV/AIDS. This is about stigmatization of persons living with HIV/AIDS among the Catholics. People who are HIV positive are branded or stigmatized by others. Persons living with HIV/AIDS are discriminated against or they isolate themselves socially. They may choose to avoid public occasions and even stopping going for Mass on Sundays or attending “Section” or Small Christian Communities’ gatherings.

Some couple of days ago, I was reading a Newspaper from Malawi and one article was on the discrimination of persons living with HIV/AIDS. The article was about a girl who is actually an orphan living with her relations. At some stage it was discovered that she was HIV positive. When her guardian learnt of the status of the girl, she was chased from the house. Why? Because of her HIV status. Another case in the same paper involved the story of a married couple whereby the wife was found to be HIV positive. From the moment of discovery, the husband deserted her. She was rejected by her own husband.

A similar case related to the question of discrimination is when one is found to be HIV positive. I was reading the recent copy of New People Magazine (Issue No. 129 November – December 2010) in which a young man fell in love with a beautiful woman and the two went to live together. Little did he know that he was sealing his own fate, because the woman he was madly in love with had the HIV/AIDS virus. Few months later, the man got sick and was almost dying from the illnesses he was vulnerable to because of the infection. Before the man died, he had exclaimed, “I wish that woman would have been truthful and told me her status before we slept together.” These were the last words of this man before he closed his eyes!

How many people, men and women, devoted Christians are willing to come out in the open and declare their status? Wouldn’t the rate of infection somehow go down if people would do that? A lot of such cases of being afraid to come up in the open to talk of one’s status, discrimination and neglect of persons living with HIV/AIDS continue to take place in our communities. Individuals neglect their HIV-positive children, parents, and other relatives, friends, associates and neighbors, by denying them food, love, care, education and other forms of support. Twenty-five to thirty years after the discovery of HIV/AIDS, this mentality of fear and of discrimination and stigmatization should have been defeated by now. The truth is that this is not easy as it sounds. The stigma related to the disease has been around for so long, that dealing with it continues to be the hardest thing. The stigma has continued to persist even among people who appear to be open and liberal. The same attitude still appears among the religious and the staunchest Christians. Churches and different faith groups have been preaching about the reality of HIV/AIDS that it is like any other disease. But this message is far from being realized and understood. Very rarely is the condition of an infected person talked openly. It is spoken in whispering and in some dark corners. I remember the story of one priest visiting the sick and after giving the sacrament of anointing, this elderly priest asked, “Is she suffering from HIV and AIDS?” There was no answer from the care givers. This shows how much the condition of any person with HIV and AIDS is not easily discussed.

Why the Stigma or not easy to talk about it openly? Cancer is a wasting disease which can be malignant, eating the part where it is. It is a major cause of death in the developed world. Yet it is a disease that people can admit and talk about it. Not exactly like that with HIV/AIDS! Why? Maybe it is a result of the history of the condition itself. In the early days of HIV/AIDS, the disease was linked to immoral behavior , commercial sex workers, truck drivers and so forth. The understanding was that HIV/AIDS did not happen to ordinary people, good living people. This tag of immorality which was so obviously associated with HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s is still present in some or many communities. Again the HIV and AIDS is still being associated in some corners and places with the “disease of death”, as most people refer to it.

Pastoral and Spiritual Care
Pope John Paul II through his Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Africa said:
“The battle against AIDS ought to be everyone’s battle. Echoing the voice of the Synod Fathers, I too ask pastoral workers to bring to their brothers and sisters affected by AIDS all possible material, moral and spiritual comfort. I urgently ask the world’s scientists and political leaders, moved by the love and respect due to every human person, to use every means available in order to put an end to this scourge.”

The Church as the Body of Christ continues to be deeply affected by this scourge of HIV/AIDS and should not stop to intervene through prayer, education and whatever means is available so as to give hope to humanity devastated by this pandemic. More emphasis in dealing with the scourge of HIV/AIDS should be put on prevention than on cure. HIV and AIDS should continue to be the priority for the Church’s mission especially in this part south of the Sahara. Having workshops like the one at the beginning of the 2010-2011 academic year at Holy Trinity College indicated how serious the college considers the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Fr Sylvester Kansimbi CSSp