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AIDS and Africa: What can one person do?


Thirty-one-year-old Zolisa died about two weeks after this photo was taken. Her then two-year-old son is now in the care of his grandmother and aunt.

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Volunteer AIDS community AIDS counselors pose with their graduation certificates.

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October 18, 2005
-by Dan Dyck, with reports from Brian Dyck and Lynell Bergen

Mthatha, South Africa/Winnipeg, Man. — Thirty-one year-old Zolisa is thin, has little energy, and is gasping for every breath. She holds her two-year-old son close. Zolisa, her mother, and a younger sister survive on about $35 CDN per month.

Zolisa is hesitant to talk to the volunteer AIDS counsellors that come to visit. They are strangers to her. At times Zolisa is in tears, but she does say this: “I met Mama Mawela [a locally trained volunteer AIDS counsellor], she is helping me. I told her that I am sick, and she brought food parcels and medicines. Sometimes I tell her I am powerless [have no energy] and she brings me food boosters.”

Two weeks later, Zolisa will breathe her last and leave her son in the care of his grandmother and aunt.

An estimated 38 million people world-wide live with it. Twenty-seven million – nearly the population of Canada – have died from it. In South Africa alone, 1.1 million children are orphans because of it.

What any one person can do to help the millions with AIDS-HIV feels like bringing one Aspirin to a global infection that few want to admit they have. And if you have no specialized training, it feels even smaller.

But that has not stopped Brian Dyck and Lynell Bergen from trying to help. The two Mennonite Church Canada Witness/Mennonite Mission Network supported workers have ministered in and around the impoverished city of Mthatha (pronounced “Umtata”), South Africa, since 1999.

Trained as pastors, Bergen and Dyck have turned their gifts to teaching and simply walking the journey with those whose spirits need lifting while their bodies are failing.

Poverty daily threatens to tip the balance from life to death, according to Bergen. Being poor in South Africa is daunting. Being poor and female is a nightmare, because women bear the brunt of responsibility for family care, and in rural areas, food production.

Stephen Lewis, the United Nations envoy on AIDS in Africa, has said he envisions a southern Africa 20 years from now in which ''you are going to sense and see the loss of women.” (New York Times, July 20, 2004)

For every ten men that are infected, thirteen women contract the deadly virus. It’s a culture where "If you don't have a mistress, you won't have a warm house,” say the locals (wink, wink). Meanwhile, governments have mostly paid attention to the ‘C’ in the ABCs of prevention: Abstain, Be Faithful, Condom-ize.

Denial of the disease (he/she “just got sick and died”) is prevalent, and the reluctance to talk about it is rampant. Technically one never dies of AIDS. It weakens the immune system, causing the body to succumb to conditions, like diarrhea, that healthy people easily overcome. But refusal to disclose one’s infection status eliminates the possibility of available, if meager, social assistance.

So Bergen and Dyck try and convince people to share their AIDS-HIV stories with others, both in local congregations of African Initiated Churches (AICs) and through Home-Based Care groups (HBC). Begun by the AICs, HBC groups provide training for local volunteers in counselling and health care for people living with AIDS.

Helping people have healthy conversations about terminal illness is where Bergen and Dyck begin, because this is where government and doctors seem unable – or unwilling – to go. Once a person living with AIDS is exposed, they can quickly become a pariah in the community.

This is where the church has a responsibility, and also an advantage over the government. “The church,” says Brian, “can speak with a moral authority that no government can. We can also speak about hope that goes beyond the present realities that government cannot really offer. The church also has a responsibility to speak in this situation. If the church is not speaking about AIDS in this context, then the church is not being the church.”

Creating space to talk in church

Preaching about AIDS is still uncomfortable for preachers across all denominations. Many pastors feel they would be criticized, or even fired by their congregations for speaking out about AIDS. “They need to though,” says Brian, referring to an Actuarial Society of South Africa study that reveals 70% of deaths in the 15-49 age range are AIDS-related.


Nothobile Mboniswa (right) with a PWA (person with AIDS) who has decided to seek counselling.

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Nothobile Mboniswa is a volunteer with Laphumilanga HBC, in Dutywa. “When someone calls me, I start off by praying with them,” she says. “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 that they can stay healthy. Some of them have stopped drinking. Some of our HIV-positive people come here to worship with us in our church. This past Sunday we were preaching about HIV/AIDS and some of them gave testimonies,” she said.

Trained HBC counsellors troll the streets with the keen eye of a private investigator, looking for clues to AIDS sufferers who fear identification. One local woman testifies to the value of the HBC volunteers: “When you see these people [the trained AIDS volunteers] going up and down, you say they have nothing to do, they are just roaming around. But when you are in trouble, you say, ‘Come here, come here.’”

A volunteer who learned how to talk about AIDS with sufferers when she took the HBC training course is well aware of a community’s secrets. At her graduation, she told her community, “I am happy that there are many mothers here at this graduation and in this course. You need to know about these things, because you need to know why I am coming to visit you. When I have come to your house, if I hear you have a sick child, you show me in your face that you do not want me there. I am not welcome. I am also a mother, and I am trying to help other mothers in this community. Now you know why I am coming.”

Such acknowledgment is a break-through. Just being able to talk to a safe person lightens the load for many sufferers. Counsellors must walk a delicate line of secrecy so as not to break up families.


Over in Soweto an enterprising Matthew Montshojang and his sidekick, Prince Tshabalala, have picked up where the government has left off. They are single-handedly addressing one of the biggest causes for the spread of AIDS: Infidelity. The government, says Montshojang, has focused far too little effort promoting the ‘A’ and ‘B’ of the ABCs – abstaining and being faithful.

Montshojang and Tshabalala pattern their popular radio show after the American reality TV show Cheaters (even using the same name). Every Thursday night on JOZI FM the two crank up ratings while throngs of listeners gather around their radios to jeer at the latest cheating spouse or partner, exposed live-on-air after a week-long investigation of the relationship.

Several factors contribute to the infidelity, including the large number of migrant workers traversing the country. They return home to share more than just a pay cheque with their spouses.

Youth Support Group

It used to be men – migrant miners – responsible for bringing the disease home. But things change.

In Maseru, the capital of Lesotho – a small, landlocked country independent from South Africa – women come from surrounding regions to work in the Taiwanese and American garment factories. During their working hours they earn about $0.70 US/hour stitching up blue jeans. In the off-hours they trade sex for housing or food. One in two women age 15 to 24 is infected.

Brian Dyck has been travelling to Lesotho (pronounced le-SOO-too) in recent times. He tells about a group of young people who came to Dave and Millie Dyck, who were then working for AIMM [Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission] in Lesotho and asked them to provide AIDS training for them. “They were tired of seeing their peers die, and wanted to do something about it,” says Brian.

AIDS counselling training was soon set up, and 80 young people participated. By the end of a week of classes, the group had formed Naleli ea Bophelo (“Star of Health”) Youth Support Group. “They started the difficult job of visiting the sick to pray for them and care for them, and educating people about AIDS,” says Dyck.


Teboho Molise (left) and Irene 'Molile meet to plan some one-day AIDS training classes in Lesotho.

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Dyck has helped Teboho Modise and Irene ‘Moleli, two coordinators with Naleli ea Bophelo, get training. The volunteer leaders fit counselling in between their regular jobs as delivery truck driver and science teacher.

A highlight for Dyck was a recent note he received from Irene ‘Moleli: She had passed her course ‘with distinction.’ “With the help of the Lord,” she wrote, “I will use the information learned to serve my church.”

Bergen and Dyck will soon end their ministry in South Africa and return to Canada. As Dyck’s last visit to Lesotho approaches, he is inspired by Irene ‘Moleli’s words. “I also ask myself, ‘How do I use what I have learned to serve my church, and the churches of Lesotho with whom we have entered into a partnership here?’”

He acknowledges it is a difficult question. “Even if we had millions of dollars to spend in Lesotho, we could not make a dent in the grinding poverty that many in the country live under. Even so, this sort of partnership would likely create more problems than it would solve.

“I think it is important for us to support those who are doing the work of the church like the people involved in Naleli ea Bophelo. We can do small things like provide teaching resources … We can provide encouragement to those who visit the sick and the dying, in the form of material support – a bit of food, a blanket or two to use for their family or to share with those who are lacking. We can pray for them, as they carry out the work of the church.

“In short, I believe our ministry in Lesotho and South Africa is to work along side our brothers and sisters there who are providing healing and hope where there is sickness and despair.”

Brian Dyck and Lynell Bergen will return to Canada in late November for several months of North American ministry before they complete their term of service. They welcome invitations to visit churches and talk about their ministry in South Africa, including inspiring stories about other work such as the Umtata Women’s Theology Group. Brian and Lynell have two sons, Samuel (1993) and Marcus (1995).