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South African churches lead in AIDS response


Mennonite Church Canada/AIMM
Dec 7, 2004
-by Lynda Hollinger-Janzen


Zolisa, now deceased, received loving care through the hands of TRASO volunteers during the last days of her life. Her son now lives with relatives.

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Umtata, South Africa — Zolisa, thin and gasping for breath, strokes her two-year-old son’s head as if she could pack a lifetime of love into the caress. Her eyes glisten with tears that threaten to spill onto her cheeks. She hesitates before speaking to Mennonite Church Canada Witness worker Lynell Bergen (Arnaud MC, Man.) and Rev. Temba Samuel Kulati because Zolisa’s community attaches stigma and shame to her illness.

A few words find their way through Zolisa’s trembling lips. “I met Mama Mawela. She is helping me. I am powerless and she brings me food boosters and medicines.” Zolisa died of AIDS two weeks after this conversation took place.

To celebrate the contributions of Mama Mawela and other volunteers trained by the Transkei AIDS Support Organization (TRASO) and now working in their local communities, Bergen will travel with her husband, Brian Dyck, and Kulati more than 600 miles from Nov. 22 to Dec.3. During this two-week period about 120 TRASO workers will receive T-shirts with Egameni lika Yesu (In the name of Jesus) printed on the front. “It’s a small token, considering the hours they give,” Bergen said. “Many of them bring from their own limited resources to help persons living with AIDS, and orphans.”

Kulati chairs the South African region of the Organization for African-Initiated Churches that founded TRASO in 2001 to provide hope, counseling and home-based care for people living with AIDS. Kulati, Mawela and many other TRASO personnel also participate actively in Bethany Bible School, a Mennonite-supported program of biblical and theological training that provides support to African-Initiated Churches in the Transkei region of South Africa.

Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network jointly support Bergen and Dyck through Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission. The couple and their two sons went to Umtata in 1999 with the primary assignment of assisting African-Initiated Churches provide leadership training through the Bethany Bible School, the Umtata Women’s Theology Group and other forums. However, in the South African context, where 20 per cent of the adult population tests HIV-positive and where the government responds to this crisis inadequately, Bergen and Dyck have become involved in health issues as churches lead the way in AIDS education and caring for families affected by the disease.

“It’s very miraculous and wonderful that, in our region, it is the African-Initiated Churches that are really a step ahead of everyone else,” Bergen said. “The government has not done well in the issues of AIDS in South Africa. All the churches are beginning to see that this is a call for them to step forward and take up their ministry as people with some moral authority, as people who had an active voice in ending apartheid. Now, this is their new battle that they need to fight together.”

Many families participating in an AIDS-related funeral refuse to name the cause of death, saying simply that their loved one took ill. “This is a common response to the ‘mystery’ disease of AIDS,” Bergen said. “It remains a mystery because people are afraid of it, don’t understand it, don’t want to talk about it. The medical community collaborates in this mystery, because they know that families can suffer persecution in their communities if it becomes public that someone in their home has died of AIDS.”

Identifying AIDS as the cause of death may also cost the family the loss of insurance benefits as some funeral home companies refuse to honor a person’s funeral insurance if they died of AIDS, Bergen said.

Nothobile Mboniswa, a pastor’s wife and TRASO volunteer, lost a maternal aunt to AIDS in each of the past three years. “There were 12 in their home,” Mboniswa said. “Now, there are only two left: my mother and her youngest brother. That’s why I decided to volunteer with AIDS work, because I felt [out of my experience] I could talk to people and I could visit them.”

Mboniswa knows she must keep her conversations confidential to prevent breaking up families. “When someone calls me, I start off by praying with them and then I tell them that being HIV-positive is not the end of the world. The thing they need to do is to change their lifestyle, so they can stay healthy. Some of them have stopped drinking. Some come to worship with us in our church. We don’t have all the answers, but we must learn to accept people.”

Mboniswa’s counseling skills helped her sister, Pinky. “I was happy that my sister took the AIDS training because when I was told I was HIV-positive, I accepted it immediately," Pinky said. "I felt I was the same as I was before. I did not feel any different. Nothobile’s training helped me because she gave me a lot of information so I knew what to do to stay healthy.”

Not only are South African women taking leadership in the care of families living with HIV/AIDS, but they have been studying the Bible to see how God’s word informs their response to the broad swath of devastation caused by this disease. The Umtata Women’s Theology Group, begun in 1986, has produced a booklet about AIDS. Their other booklets treat topics as varied as women in the church, marriage, parenting, divorce, singleness, aging and dying. The Umtata booklets are currently being translated into French for use in the francophone countries of Africa.

The women’s theology group strives “to dig deeper into what scripture means to them, and not just what they were hearing from the men in the front [at church services],” Bergen said.

Bergen finds that TRASO volunteers have grown into community leaders through their ministry to families living with AIDS. “Though the volunteers may have little formal education, the nurses in the local clinics rely on them as resource people. The volunteers have responded to God’s call to care for the least and the lowest. They are finding their voices as women who are courageously confronting apathy and fear among church and traditional leaders,” Bergen said.