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AIDS: Overcoming the secrecy stigma in South Africa

   
 


Lynell Bergen, centre, poses with graduates of the Home Based Care Course. Graduates are trained to help people with AIDS overcome the secrecy stigma of the disease, encouraging them to talk openly, offering guidance on how to treat symptoms and where to find additional help.

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April 14, 2006
-by Jeff Enns

Winnipeg, Man. —While Brian Dyck and Lynell Bergen spent six-years in ministry with the people of Mthatha, South Africa, the country was ransacked by a potent and silent killer – AIDS.

In 2004, an estimated 70 percent of adult deaths (ages 15-49) in South Africa were a result of the virus, or related health complications from it. So why aren’t the locals talking about it?

According to Bergen, AIDS in South Africa is thriving on deception and shame. “They [local people] call AIDS the American invention to destroy sex – a lie [local people use] to justify promiscuity,” said Bergen. Over one in five adults living in South Africa are infected with HIV/AIDS but many are in denial and refuse to seek out available resources.

Bergen and Dyck, Mennonite Church Canada/Witness Mennonite Mission Network workers from Arnaud Mennonite Church, Manitoba, witnessed the devastating affects of HIV/AIDS in South Africa first hand. They returned to Canada in November 2005 to conclude their South African ministry with a time of itineration in North America – and an opportunity to reflect on the AIDS crisis and the church’s role in combating it.

A significant challenge in the HIV/AIDS battle is that those who are best able to join the fight against it, are affected the most. With death rates highest among young adults, the most productive members of society are sidelined. And children, the future of any society, carry a greater risk of contracting the disease through an infected mother. Many more children are affected when their parents die. A child in South Africa is considered an orphan once they have lost their mother.

Saturdays in South Africa, formerly the only available weekday that the couple could teach and minister, are now reserved for funerals as victims of HIV/AIDS continue to mount. New ways of thinking about education are needed in this setting, where so much time and resources are devoted to crisis.

“You have to get people to think about their lives and their world in a different way, and that’s what the church is about,” states Dyck. “That is why I think the church is better placed than anyone else to deal with this.” This rings especially true for the African Independent Churches (AIC) said Bergen: They are deeply rooted in South African culture and place an emphasis on healing.

For healing to begin, people with AIDS must be willing to talk about the disease. This is the biggest obstacle, say the couple, and it is why they encourage people to speak out. It is also why the church has a significant and unique role to play – a role the government is not addressing.

Money is often perceived as the biggest need in the fight against HIV/AIDS, but Dyck contends that even more vital is changing the way people respond to the disease.

Bergen uses global warming as an analogy for the AIDS crisis. She observes that we know what the problem is, what’s causing it, and yet society is doing the opposite of what needs to be done; cars keep getting bigger. A similar reaction occurs in South Africa with HIV/AIDS. “People know what they have to do but they are not doing it,” said Bergen, “and [they] are killing themselves in the process.”

AIDS is propagated when infected persons disguise or refuse to acknowledge the symptoms. Moreover, the topic of sexuality is taboo within the church, but open discussion is essential for AIDS prevention. So Bergen and Dyck work at dismantling the barriers in churches, schools, and communities.

In their work they sought to provide victims with hope, and then tools for dealing with the issues. There are ways to fight the virus, they say, but not if you are living in denial. To those suffering with HIV/AIDS Dyck advises: “You need to admit that you have this and you need to change the way you live.”

Bergen calls on local churches to use the resources that they have in front of them. Local churches have responded by setting up home-based care programs, volunteering at clinics and starting community development projects.

Before leaving South Africa, the couple initiated local training sessions in collaboration with the AICs. The purpose is to educate people on how to deal with HIV/AIDS and get them involved in a ministry of hope. They reflect about how a ministry can change someone – giving them hope, purpose, and the ability to centre their lives in a new way.

“When God calls you to something and you respond to that call, you become transformed,” Bergen responds. “Just like we have been transformed by being in Africa.”