God, AIDS, Africa & HOPE

Thoughts, inside, comments of a Catholic priest

Safari in Zambia

Bartholomäus Grill

’Safari in Zambia’ – A modern fairy tale in South Africa

The journalist drives to the township, visits a clinic, views the medical facilities, stands next to a sick-bed, speaks with patients, their relatives, nursing sisters, doctors. And then he returns to his desk to draft his report. He is shaken by the stories he has heard and the suffering he has seen, but now HIV/Aids is as distant as his city office is from the slums. That’s the routine of the foreign correspondent in South Africa. He moves between two worlds and tries to convey to his European readership a hopefully authentic picture of the pandemic’s destructive effects.

But today, a scorching day at the end of November 2004, everything is different. Christmas is coming and, as every year, I’m making plans to take gifts to the township. Toys which our son Leo doesn’t play with anymore or which are slightly damaged – toy cars with bent axles, faded building blocks, a plastic robot from Kentucky Fried Chicken that has lost its antennas. And a beautiful white rocking horse with real horse hair which Leo recently won in a tombola at his crèche. He was never really that keen on it, calling it a “girly horse”, and now he wants to give it to the children at the Beautiful Gate orphanage in Crossroads township. These children have very few toys, and white kids like him have plenty. And such a big rocking horse, that would be something very special for them. Leo wants to present it himself, and now we have a problem.

We, as parents, are now facing a question which we have not asked ourselves before: what are the risks of infection if Leo should play with HIV-positive peers. Shouldn’t a four-year-old rather stay at home? Or are we being overprotective? Are we still unnerved by the dregs of those myths and urban legends we have encountered in Africa? Some people believe that you can get HIV just from shaking hands. Or from the saliva of people who spit when they speak. Or from toilet seats. Or from touching a door handle.

Of course we know that these ideas are baloney. But what if Leo gets a scratch while fooling around on the monkey gym, if he’s bleeding from an unnoticed wound and wrestles around with a kid who has an open sore? Or if a child with TB coughs at him? We are anxious. We may know a lot about HIV/Aids, but do we know enough? A weird feeling comes over us, but we don’t want to admit it: it’s a kind of residual fear of HIV/Aids.

In the end, we rose above these concerns. After all, we had often visited the children at Beautiful Gate with colleagues and friends. We played with them and carried them in our arms. So, pack in the rocking horse and off to Crossroads! It turned out to be a jolly afternoon. The children were delighted with the rocking horse, and Leo, who during the presentation was still a little shy, was running around with them in the garden. Today, a few years later, we can only laugh at those concerns of ours.

But then there is the story of the  Pettersons* family: Lisa, an entrepreneur from Belgium, and Ulf, a Swedish designer, and their son Arvid. Their nanny Tshepo had been feeling unwell for a while. (She doesn’t want to be identified for reasons that will become clear, so her name and that of others involved in this account have been changed.) When she couldn’t work any longer, the Pettersons sent her to their general practitioner. He examined Tshepo thoroughly and voiced an alarming suspicion. After repeated blood tests he called Ulf and told him that Tshepo was HIV-positive. During the telephone conversation Ulf looked out of the window into the garden, where Tshepo was playing with Arvid. It’s easy to imagine what fear suddenly gripped Ulf. And he was also annoyed that the doctor should have given him, not his patient, the test results.

Shortly after, Tshepo, the doctor and Arvids’ parents gathered in the Petterssons’ living room. Tshepo seemed to sense what was going on because, as Ulf remembers it, there was panic in her eyes. She reacted with shock to the news and expressed doubt that the GP was telling the truth. She pushed little Arvid away from her – to protect him. She presumed she was going to lose her job that day.

The weekend seemed to last an eternity. The Petterssons were facing an emergency. What now? They conferred with medical experts in South Africa, called Aids consultants overseas, googled the Internet, talked with friends, and discussed all available options to the point of personal exhaustion. Out of the blue, HIV/Aids had ceased to be an impersonal disaster that was raging elsewhere, out there in the desolation of the townships. It now was an illness close to home, intimately so. It was entering the inner family circle, posing a risk to what was most precious to them, their only child.

At times like these one begins to question certainties. What are the possibilities of infection? How big is the risk of contagion really? Aren’t there some extraordinary circumstances when the virus can be transmitted? Could it happen while brushing teeth? Or during nappy changes when the child’s skin is raw? Or through tiny abrasions while the child is playing?

It was a torturous weekend. The love for their child was at variance with the welfare of a person who had loved the child like nobody else. What to do? For parents this is a lonely time.

And so it was for Tshepo. That weekend she sat in her tiny flat in Gugulethu township, tormented by fear, resignation and an intense sense uncertainty. She berated herself. How could it come to this? How could she ever lead a normal life again? Could she even justify to still take care of little Arvid? Out of the question, case closed. She felt like all people do at first after receiving such crushing news: as though they are on death row. But what if it turns out differently? What if there is a miracle and she can continue working? Tshepo is a religious woman, and in all the gloominess of her situation there was still a tiny glimmer of hope. She thought about how she could protect Silas. She could wear plastic aprons and gloves, and stop working at the lightest scratch until it was healed.

And then came the decision Tshepo didn’t expect – and neither did the Petterssons. They resolved to keep Tshepo on. To this day they are surprised at the boldness of their decision. They even went against the insistent advice of their doctor who thought the risk was too high and recommended that Tshepo be dismissed immediately. My wife Antje and I have often talked about what we might have done. Our Leo and an HIV-positive nanny? Could it, would it, might it have been defensible? Are there limits to compassion? Where do we draw these limits? I’m not sure that I would have been as courageous as the Petterssons.

Since the Petterssons took their decision, Arvid got a little sister, Annika. And of course Tshepo looks after her too. She is a cheerful and happy person; she has a fulfilling job and a family which embraces her as one their own. “Tshepo enriches our life,” says Ulf, “because through her we have discovered a whole new dimension to humanity.”

Arvid celebrates his fifth birthday with a party. The garden is decorated with paper flags, and a crowd of children are running after colourful balloons. In the midst of them are Arvid, Annika, Leo and Tshepo. They are now climbing all over Lisa’s old Landrover and play “Safari in Zambia”. Tshepo tells me that she changed antiretroviral medications two months ago. Her CD4 cell count – that is, the white blood cells that coordinate the human immune system and help to ward off infections – had dropped to a life-threatening 35 per millilitre of blood, but now it’s back to 700. She tells me all that clearly and without inhibition. She has learnt to speak about HIV/Aids and its implications. And she has set some strict ground rules for when she is in the company of the children. But generally her disorder is no longer an issue.

“Do you remember when we visited Tutu?” she asks me. How could I forget the meeting with the former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town? Events like these are among the highlights of any foreign correspondent’s life. In 2006 Ulf and I had an appointment with Tutu to do a profile on him for a Swiss magazine. Tshepo had heard about it and asked if she could tag along; it was her dream to meet that outspoken man of God personally. So we took her along, and I think our meeting was all the more relaxed and jovial because we were accompanied by a black sister, a simple woman, who bore her heavy cross with a light heart. After the interview Tutu blessed us and Ulf took a picture of Tshepo with the Archbishop. That photo now hangs in her parents’ house, in a small village in the Free State, and hardly a day goes by when neighbours and relatives don’t come around to admire it.

Everybody is proud of Tshepo, but that could quickly change if her HIV status was revealed. Only her parents know, and her sister, with whom she shares the flat in Gugulethu. The fear of being stigmatised is great, and in rural areas having the disease can lead to banishment from the community – and then even a photo with the legendary freedom fighter Desmond Tutu won’t help. And that’s why Tshepo insists that her story won’t be published in South Africa.

But she doesn’t have more time to chat now. The minibus taxi will come soon. She must get home to Gugulethu while the sun is still out because after dusk it is too dangerous to walk outdoors on account of the robberies. Tshepo embraces Ulf and Lisa, and kisses the birthday boy. And little Annika gets a specially big kiss on the cheek.

* Names and places changed

Translation from the book:
Gott – Aids – Afrika
Hardcover: 207 pages  –  Publisher: Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH (August 31, 2007)
Language: German  –  ISBN-10: 3462039253  –  ISBN-13: 978-3462039252
Gott – Aids – Afrika
Paperback  – Bastei – Luebbe  –
Language: German  –  ISBN-10: 3404606159  –  ISBN-13: 978-3404606153

Filed under: General, HIV and AIDS, HIV Prevention, HIV Treatment, HOPE Cape Town Association & Trust, HOPE Cape Town Trust, Medical and Research, Networking, Politics and Society, Reflection, Society and living environment, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

HIV, AIDS and HOPE – thoughts of a Catholic priest

Being a Roman - Catholic priest and working in the fields of HIV and AIDS in Africa is often a challenge. Living in Africa has also its challenges. On the other hand I feel very much blessed having all the three. So you will find stories and reflections about my work, about the church, South Africa and Africa and essential information and developments in the field of HIV and AIDS. And in between personal stories and thoughts. You are most welcome to leave a comment or to get in touch with me - blogs - "thinking loud" so to speak is a ways of communication and exchange of ideas.

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