God, AIDS, Africa & HOPE

Thoughts, inside, comments of a Catholic priest

We are not lost!

Bartholomäus Grill

We are not lost! – How young people in Lesotho use unusual methods to fight the pandemic

By now it’s the fourth or fifth funeral parlour we have passed as we drive from Lesotho’s capital Maseru to the king’s village. It’s a brand-new building; the paint and the logo advertising “Funeral Service” are still pristine. “That’s the fastest-growing industry in Lesotho,” says Thabiso Motsusi. He means to joke, and laughs to reassure his disheartened visitor. But how else should the visitor feel today? It’s murky and wet, the mountains are shrouded in black clouds, and icy gusts are announcing the onset of the Southern winter. At the edge of the town we come across a funeral procession, we pass a cemetery with fresh graves, and we count the number of establishments whose trade is mortality. These are the visible signs of the catastrophe that has overwhelmed Lesotho.

The small kingdom in the Southern African Drakensberg is among the countries with the highest HIV/Aids rates in the world. Every third adult in the economically active age group of 15-49 years carries the virus. Average life expectancy, according to UNAids estimates, has dropped to 35,2 years – a figure that corresponds with the conditions in medieval Europe! These shocking statistics have helped reinforce a Western impression of Africans just accepting their fate, standing by feebly as the disease devours their communities.

The hopeless continent – it’s an enduring cliché, and it infuriates activists like Thabiso Motsusi. He and his team disprove the stereotype every day. They are doing so on this gloomy winter morning, as they have done for years, driving from Maseru to the most isolated mountain villages where they provide Aids education. They debate with communities, they overcome silence and denial, they offer sound advice, and they hand out thousands of condoms. And they use a medium which very few Basotho in the region have access to: video. Sesotho Media & Development, founded in 1999 by the South African documentary filmmaker Don Edkins and funded by Brot für die Welt, has an archive of 150 films on political, social and cultural problems. One, entitled Ask Me, I’m Positive, is particularly popular. Directed by Edkins’ son Teboho, the film’s leads are Thabiso and his friends Thabo Rannana and Moalosi Thabane. They play themselves: three young HIV-positive men who speak openly, provocatively and with humour about their disease.

Today the group is five strong – Thabiso, Thabo, Moalosi, Malehloa and Mamolefe – and the destination of their Mobile Video Unit is Matsieng, the home village of Lesotho’s king. Rondavels with reed roofs, luscious grazing meadows, the monarch’s palace beneath steep rock face from which one can hear the whooshing of a waterfall – the place might call to mind an old African idyll, if it wasn’t for this eerie silence. Just a few children and some old folks are about. As the film starts in the community centre, only a few curious villagers have arrived. “Today there are two funerals, and everybody is gone to those,” a community leader says apologetically. Two more Aids victims, two more young people fallen to the disease. But we won’t learn about the cause of their death until later. The community leader didn’t volunteer that information; he is embarrassed.

Two hours later, the audience in the draughty hall has swelled to 30, and they are watching a short film, A Miner’s Tale. It is about migrant labourers from Lesotho – salaried slaves – who toil in South African mines, bringing home money and lethal diseases. But the people of Matsieng are not convinced by the message. “The sickness came from rich countries,” opines an old man, covered in a thick blanket. “It’s in the food the whites are distributing.” A woman in a red jersey believes the Southern African Development Community (SADC) caused the disaster. Aids is a curse; it’s simply inexplicable why the immune deficiency syndrome has hit their tiny country so hard. One Sesotho word used to describe the pandemic is Sekere – the scissors that cut away people. Kokonya, a blood-sucking insect, is another. A farmer tells of how a 15-year-old girl, an Aids orphan, was terrorized in his village. “Be quiet, or we’ll beat you to death,” her own relatives threatened.

Ignorance, fear, superstition, stigmatization – a panorama of Aids-confusion is unfolding in the gloom of the hall. The educators of Sesotho Media are used to it; they debate in plain language and with unflinching composure. In the end it’s their sincerity that wins over the crowd. “Look at me,” Moalosi shouts, “I’ve been HIV-positive for years, and yet I’m still alive! We’re not lost; we can still curb the disease.”

Moalosi doesn’t let on that he doesn’t feel too well today. Shortly before the group’s departure he had suffered debilitating cramps. On the way here he quickly bought painkillers at a pharmacy. “I would have joined the ancestors a long time ago if I didn’t have antiretroviral medication,” he says. Those who have access to these expensive drugs are among the privileged few in Lesotho: at the end of 2005, only 8,400 patients were receiving ARV therapy. The number of people who need it urgently, however, is closing in on 100,000. “As a poor country, we have an enormous disparity, but what’s more important is prevention,” Malehloa says.

We hear the same words from the king, who receives us the next day. His Majesty King Letsie III, a corpulent and thoughtful man in his 40s, is a godsend for his country. He speaks about the disease candidly and without inhibitions. Among African rulers he is quite unusual in that respect. African leaders by and large act as though HIV/Aids was just an illusion, and they definitely will not talk about the absolute power of men and their calamitous sexual practices which accelerate the proliferation of the disease. King Letsie, a practising Catholic, is not shy to chide his own Church: the blinkered priests who continue to denounce condoms and on Sundays issue their naïve appeals: “Be abstinent! Practise chastity! Don’t sin!” Involuntarily a big field in the middle of Maseru springs to mind. On it stands a rusting white metal structure: the pavilion built especially for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Lesotho in 1988. It is an unintentional symbol of how the Vatican has let Africa down. “We must act,” the king warns. “There is not a single family in my kingdom that has not been affected” by HIV/Aids. “If we don’t act, we will disappear from the face of the earth.”

The mobile cinema’s next deployment is at Butha-Buthe prison. The inmates have gathered inside an army tent in the courtyard. They are murderers, rapists, robbers. All men, most of them still quite young. The acrid scent of sweat permeates the hot and sticky air beneath the olive canvas. The men sit tightly packed on the clay ground and watch a film titled A Fighting Spirit. It tells the story of Gilbert Josamu, an HIV-positive boxer who acknowledged his illness and continued to fight, to the outrage of some opponents. The film is intended to encourage a thorny discussion. They know that every third man here is HIV-positive, but nobody knows who.

“Why is it so difficult when somebody outs himself?” Moalosi asks. “Because,” an inmate responds, “you’ll be cast out. And here you can’t run away from it.” Moalosi: “But wouldn’t it be better to deal with the problem openly?” “No, because then there is a greater fear of being infected,” says a giant of a man who doesn’t look much like anything could scare him. “But everybody should at least be tested,” says a man with a woollen cap next to the giant. “I did, but I won’t give away the result.” “But we must know who is HIV-positive,” another inmate objects, “because we sometimes have fights, and then there’s blood.”

An older man, who says he is a sangoma (or traditional healer), reassures his cohorts: “Don’t worry, I can cure Aids.” But most inmates don’t think much of his quackery. They want to know more about the disease. How is the virus transmitted? Is sweat contagious? Can we use the same ablution facilities without having to worry?

Questions, answers, interjections, doubts. For half an hour the discussion swings back and forth. Then a shaven-headed boy rises and declares with quivering voice: “I want to publicly admit today that I am positive.” Suddenly there is silence in the tent, uncertain and suspicious looks fly this way and that way. After about a minute, a prisoner growls: “I’m in a cell with that man. I want to be transferred.” The mood is threatening to turn ugly. Fingers are pointed: Why is he telling us only now? Later Moalosi will admit that this was a very precarious situation. There might have been huge trouble, if not now than certainly later, in the cells. But then there is Akim Phamotse, the avuncular, affable prison director. He moves among the prisoners and calms things down. “Nobody will be discriminated against,” he instructs. “Everybody can be voluntarily tested and the results will be anonymous. But everybody should feel free to tell others about it. We will help and protect you.”

In a prison such an attitude comes unexpectedly. African jails tend to be dumps in which inmates rot away in misery. But in the correctional facility of Butha-Buthe there are democratic rules, and human rights are observed. The prison regularly hosts discussions with Aids consultants.

Return to Maseru. It is slowly getting dark. On the roadsides women balance bundles of firewood on their heads, and cows with lightly chiming bells are coming down from the mountains. The team is satisfied: another good performance, another little step taken in the long fight against the disease. Some children are waving; they know the white SVU with the number AP 845. Thabo, Moalosi and the others with their mobile cinema in the mountains of Lesotho – that could be a model for all of Africa. After a day like this, not even all those funeral parlours can breach a good vibe.

“Aids kills! Aids is real!” The big billboards bearing that slogan and the huge Aids ribbon on the boulders overlooking the capital city are symbols of hopefulness. Look here, we are taking the challenge on. We are not going to just surrender to the pandemic. As we pass the peculiar papal structure, we realise what distinguishes this campaign from other Aids education enterprises: there wasn’t a single white adviser or consultant involved, no medical expert from Europe, no field manager, no know-it-all coordinator. Just Africans. Young, creative men and women who are themselves infected, who in spite of their acute circumstances retain an incredible self-belief in their fight against the disease. And they are so joyful in their work that they put us pessimists to shame.

Now we’re sitting in Sesotho Media’s compact office. The team and their sensible coordinator, Malibuseng Matsoso, are planning next week’s tours. But first Thabiso wants to tell us a story. When he and his colleagues were going to fly to Germany to exhibit their film Ask me, I Am Positive at the Africa Festival in Würzburg, German immigration officials intercepted them already at Johannesburg airport. Aids education? Invitation? Anyone can say that. Your papers are forgeries, they were told. The three men were detained and for several days had no access to their life-saving medications. After a week, South African officials simply deported them to Lesotho.

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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