God, AIDS, Africa & HOPE

Reflections / Gedanken

And it does move

Stefan Hippler

And it does move  –  Instead of an epilogue, a wish list for our Church

Why did we write this book? Because we have a matter with which we are trying to reach the Vatican, the centre of our Church. We sent the German edition of this book to Pope Benedict XVI in Rome as this was the only way of reaching him. We tried, but for an ordinary foreign chaplain it is impossible to secure a private audience with the pontiff, and even less so when he is accompanied by a critical brethren, a journalist even. “But why is the pope so important to you?” our friends ask. That’s simple: because the Catholic Church is centred on one man whose word is the law in the Catholic Church; he represents God’s supremacy. In these bewildering times of HIV/Aids, he – and only he – can effect a real landmark change.

I have tried to get access at least to an influential curial cardinal, the equivalent of a cabinet minister in the Vatican government. But even that turned out to be a mission impossible, because the path to them runs through local episcopates, which in turn were less than cooperative because our matter relates to the delicate subject of HIV/Aids. My co-author Bartholomäus Grill asked Father Eberhard von Gemmingen, the Jesuit editor-in-chief of Vatican Radio’s German service, for advice. He suggested that we collaborate with other theologians in formulating a kind of declaration to be sent to the Vatican. This book is our declaration.

Some fellow Catholics advised against taking this route. “It won’t accomplish anything. You won’t be thanked for it and in the end you’ll get into trouble,” they warned. Clearly there is not much confidence in our Church leadership’s openness to dialogue. But in the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes it is written: “By virtue of her mission to shed on the whole world the radiance of the Gospel message, and to unify under one Spirit all men of whatever nation, race or culture, the Church stands forth as a sign of that brotherhood which allows honest dialogue and gives it vigour” (92). This is a caution that even in the licit diversity of thought in the Church, dialogue must always be marked by “mutual esteem, reverence and harmony”. Gaudium et Spes teaches that  “thus all those who compose the one People of God, both pastors and the general faithful, can engage in dialogue with ever abounding fruitfulness. For the bonds which unite the faithful are mightier than anything dividing them. Hence, let there be unity in what is necessary; freedom in what is unsettled, and charity in any case.” This could be the leading motto of our book.

I am convinced that in this spirit, development on controversial ecclesial and theological issues is and must be possible – that in the 21st century we can and may revise the time-honoured teachings of Church Fathers such as St Augustine.

Konrad Hilpert, professor of moral theology at Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilian University, in a highly recommended essay demonstrated how St Augustine’s dictum of error having no freedom marked papal proclamations right up to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). As recently as the reign of Pius IX in the 19th century, encyclicals such as Quanta cura and its attendant syllabus (a list of “theological errors”) denied the notion of religious freedom. Pius IX even described the idea of freedom of conscience and safeguarding it in civil law as an “error and absurdity, and even madness”.

Hilpert credits our Pope Benedict XVI, among others, for the Vatican II decree which enshrined religious freedom. For the Pope, then Fr Joseph Ratzinger and a theological expert at the Council, 28 October 1965 signified the “end of the Dark Ages” That was the day that, after much heated discussion, the Council adopted the decree Nostra aetate. It included the revolutionary sentence: “The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, colour, condition of life, or religion.” A courageous Council managed a breakthrough from which we can’t and don’t want to turn back.

More than 40 years have passed since, and the world has become so much more complex and complicated that an individual person can’t understand it in its totality. Not even the Pope. He must rely on the analysis of highly qualified experts. And this is where the problems begin: It always seems as though some papal advisers have divorced themselves from the secular world, as if they are sitting in the ivory tower of the Vatican, trying to understand the realities of “out there”. Often this creates a conflict with actual conditions. A reform that would see the regular rotation of consultative curial personnel is overdue. We need consultants who know real life and in the pursuit of truth conduct a fearless dialogue with the world.

Our hopes rest entirely with the Pope. He is a kind and humble man, and a brilliant theologian – that is a perfect combination of attributes to bring about freedom of research and spiritual examination within the ecclesiastical system. Theology and life, teaching and praxis, tradition and experience, religion and enlightenment must reconcile for the convergence of truth. Of course this is a self-critical endeavour which might afflict some people. It’s about the Church’s capacity to adapt, something which throughout Church history has always posed a challenge. But we have the protection of the Holy Spirit and must trust that the Spirit will guide our thoughts and actions.

The journey with HOPE Cape Town has changed my life. My encounters in the townships, my work with people from different cultures, the existential confrontation with dying and death, with desperation and hope – all these experiences are a gift from God for which I am infinitely thankful. I am at home in two worlds: in the world of poverty which needs aid, and in the world of prosperity which can offer such aid. I am something of a nomad between these worlds – I often had doubts that I might be able do that. Today I can say that it was the best thing that could ever have happened to me.

One must have visited a corrugated iron shack in South Africa to get a measure of the extent of the crisis. One must have held the hand of someone about to die from the effects of immune deficiency to appreciate the extreme injustice of globalised apartheid. One must have seen, heard, smelled and tasted the misery to really understand it. Only then is it possible to fully comprehend the scandal of the present conditions, the ignorance of the mighty, and the indifference of the affluent.

The Sabbath exists for the people, not the people for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). With that in mind, I express my wish that the Church leaders in the inner circles would occasionally turn around to see the realities faced by the people on the periphery.

I have contributed to this book as a human being who is confronted every day with the struggles for survival of the poor and the ill, as one who lives and suffers with them. I have written as a Christian who believes to be meeting Jesus in every one of our brothers and sisters. I have written as a Catholic who knows that the joys and fears of his fellow human beings are also his joys and fears. And I have written as a pastor of a church which always seeks, because of its historical experience and eternal vocation, to reform itself anew.

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, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Wanted – a theology of Aids

Stefan Hippler

Wanted – a theology of Aids
The principle of oikonomia: a way out for a Catholic dilemma

It is remarkable that in our godless times, when many people have abandoned faith and church, the debate about the meaning of religion should become more intense than it has been for a long time. It relates to Samuel Huntington’s controversial theory of the “Clash of Civilisations” which today finds expression in the various conflicts and inflated sensibilities between the Muslim and Christian worlds. And it also relates to the death of Pope John Paul II and the choice of his successor, Benedict XVI.

Since his election, Catholic moral teaching has been subjected to much heated discussion in the media. Of course, the old debate about condoms keeps coming up, especially among journalists who normally show scant interest in the Church. The Holy See is not impervious to this: at least the Vatican has started to think about the use of preservatives as a possible means of protection within marriage.

The first time the new pope welcomed a delegation of bishops from Southern Africa, he shared their deep concern about the destruction created by Aids. But the full extent of the tragedy was still being underestimated, because the pontiff underlined chastity and fidelity as the only reliable way of curbing the disease.

While the centre is in a state of understated bafflement, we at the periphery have to observe that those who follow the Church teachings on sexual morality too scrupulously put themselves at mortal risk, particularly African women whose husbands are unfaithful. The continent tells many thousands distressing stories – but few are listening, not even in the Church which places a primacy on the protection of life. We are letting our people down – with all good intentions but fatal consequences. Among Africa’s millions of Aids dead are also millions of dead Catholics. But most Church leaders have learnt to keep quiet, looking to Rome for answers. Which way are we going to take?

The Catholic Church is a communion of saints and sinners, and we are called to attend to both. Vatican II refers us to our sister churches and their rich traditions. I am delighted to note that Pope Benedict XVI’s intent to build on the legacy of the Council. Perhaps this may open a window of opportunity, a little window of hope? Perhaps words will be followed by action? Perhaps we can learn from our sister churches?

For example, the Orthodox Church recognises the principle of oikonomia.

A Greek word meaning maintenance and prudence, it expresses the mystery of divine love made real through Jesus Christ’s message and His living example which endures in the endeavours of the Church. The principle respects the authoritative rules of the Church, but allows for these to be set aside under exceptional circumstances – not to set a precedent, but for the sake of suffering people. For instance, the Orthodox Church applies oikonomia in a failing marriage: in principle, matrimony is indissoluble, but it can break down irreconcilably. In such cases, new nuptials are permissible after a period of reflection and penance. Thus, God’s merciful and unconditional love is manifest even in failure. What God makes possible, the Church has to put into action as it seeks to communicate a credible account of a loving God.

Vatican II calls on us Christian to read the “Signs of the Times”, and HIV/Aids is such a sign.

For the Church, the only appropriate response is to fight the pandemic not with moral arguments, but by embracing infected people with God’s absolute love – with a love that does not care only for the ill but is also open to all human reality, and which does not condemn. I plead with theologians and bishops to discuss this way, this principle of oikonomia sincerely and judiciously, and to do so very soon, because our brothers and sisters are dying. We are running danger of sinning against them by omission. It simply cannot be that the disciplines of the Church precede the right to life!

As I attempt to explain the spirit of oikonomia to my Christian brothers and sisters, I am met by very diverse reactions. Moral theologians point out that the principle isn’t at all new, and that many a cardinal or bishop is already leaning towards it. The brave among them even permit the option of condom use. But it is exactly because I take the Church’s teaching authority so seriously that I am hoping for a clear word from the Prince of the Apostles in Rome. On a global scale, a papal pronouncement would weigh more than diffuse episcopal voices. An impassioned word, borne of the suffering of people and God’s unending love, could save so many lives.

Some of my critics have contended that the theological principle of oikonomia would open the gates for immoral behaviour through the backdoor. They misinterpret my suggestion. I cannot work out how the freedom to use condoms should invariably lead to debauchery, especially when scientific studies do not support that argument. Even less do I understand why a little piece of latex should ignite such heated debate in Catholic circles. Of course it is right that we as Church should advocate our moral code, but from this flows no right to condemn effective protection against death and thereby confuse the faithful.

The most frequent question put to me on this point is this: “Isn’t the manner in which you seek to interpret and apply the oikonomia principle focussed exclusively on the condom issue?” My answer is: No, it means much, much more than that. Primarily the oikonomia principle would serve to address prejudice and stigmatization. In the field of HIV/Aids, the issues range from the disciplines of the Church to equal gender rights.

The lives and suffering of HIV-positive people would change if we welcomed them as brothers and sisters, instead of letting them feel subtle discrimination, for example when people who reveal themselves as HIV-positive are quietly advised to move into another parish, or when they have to wait until they are mortally ill before we provide them with palliative care. Of course we will encounter individuals who reject our Christian value system. But even in these cases it is important to reveal all life options and to control our missionary zeal. In doing so we don’t betray our moral principles, but much more recognise the freedom of conscience of those who don’t conform to them.

In the early 1980s, when the virus was first discovered, Ronald Reagan was the president of the United States of America. He was a devout Christian and, like many of his co-religionists, saw the disease as a “gay illness”, a punishment for the supposed depravity of homosexuals. As a result, the US government did not take the epidemic seriously and responded to it only half-heartedly. The consequences of that are well known: the virus spread unchecked.

The errors of Reagan’s administration should remind us Christians in particular that all our actions and all our teachings could have a fatal price. They should also remind us that we human beings are the first recipients of God’s infinite love. Which brings us back to oikonomia. Only if we recognise and experience this principle ourselves will we be able to pass it on to our sisters and brothers elsewhere.

Our sermons, statements and good intentions count for nothing against the applied Word of God, the experience of God’s love. So we must today do everything we can to curb the spread of HIV/Aids so that in 50 years time the Catholic Church need not issue a remorseful mea culpa – that would be of absolutely no use to millions of Aids victims.

We desperately need a theology of Aids – but not one taking the form of academic proclamations from the Roman curia, but a new, living doctrine which draws from the experiences of HIV-positive people. Because it is here – among the infected, the suffering and the dying, and among all our sisters and brothers – where we find God. Here we meet our Brother Jesus, the very source of our theology.

A practical suggestion: We should utilise our churches and institutional facilities as places of tranquillity and discretion where people can let themselves be tested. Our Church is the biggest religious communion in the world; none has greater numbers of facilities that could be employed in the fight against the pandemic. This would be constructive especially in developing countries where the necessary infrastructure is often lacking.

Why don’t we offer voluntary HIV-tests before every wedding, and then, regardless of the results, encourage the love between two people and strengthen it in the sacrament of matrimony? What a wonderful symbol of solidarity that would be! We would no longer judge and condemn, but assist HIV-positive people and their incipient family life. Of course we also would have to answer the question of how to prevent the transmission of the virus in procreation. Scientific research has shown that a positive test result and knowledge of it has no significant influence on sexual behaviour. We must use this fact to encourage permanent behavioural modification. This is one way in which we as the Catholic Church can move ahead without zealousness.

Pope Benedict is preparing for a second Synod for Africa. It would be a courageous and groundbreaking sign if two days would be allocated to the topic of HIV/Aids and its catastrophic effects. One day, perhaps, to just listen to people who carry the virus, and a second day in which to prayerfully reflect on their reports. Utopic, you say? No, that would be oikonomia in action!

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, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

How human may Jesus be?

Stefan Hippler

How human may Jesus be? – Why our Church reacts too slowly to major challenges

I would like to begin this chapter with a report on the Vatican Radio’s German service. It deals with an issue that appears to be remote from the subject matter of this book. But if we look closely, we will see that it not only touches on the issues before us, but also belongs to the same theological problem area. But back to the radio report.

“Today a full meeting of the International Theological Commission is deliberating in the Vatican,” the commentator informs us. The main topic is unexpected: the state of children who die un-baptised. The question arises to the background of the assumption, held by the Church for nearly two millennia, that only those people who on earth believed in Jesus Christ will see the face of God. Un-baptised babies hadn’t believed in Christ (because they couldn’t), the report points out. But because they were sinless, they would be in a state of eternal bliss – but not in the company of God. The report says that in light of new theological studies, this belief has become disputable. Next we hear the commission’s general-secretary, the Jesuit Luis Ladaria, who explains what is the Church saying in the case of unbaptized children who have died: “There is no Catholic doctrine that is binding. We know that during many centuries it was thought that children went to limbo, where they enjoyed a natural happiness, but they did not have the vision of God. Because of recent developments, not only theological but also of the magisterium, this belief is in crisis today. We, thus, are now studying this problem knowing that it is a point upon which there has not been a definitive pronouncement.” Whatever the case, however, God’s desire to lead all people to redemption applies, as do Christ’s mediation and the sacraments of the Church in God’s salvation plan. Ladaria continues: “We must begin with the fact that God wants the salvation of all and does not want to exclude any one; we must base ourselves on the fact that Christ died for all men and that the Church is a universal sacrament of salvation, as the Second Vatican Council teaches. Therefore, if we begin from these premises, the problem of the need of baptism is framed in a broader context.”

Ladaria’s words shine the spotlight on one of the most fundamental dilemmas in the Church’s evolution. Not very long ago, as recent as the 20th century, children who died without receiving the first sacrament had to be buried outside the cemetery walls. They were, according to handed-down teaching, in limbo. Today most Catholics don’t doubt that unbaptized children are in God’s presence. But a commission of theologians is still wrestling with that question. In fairness, Father Ladaria acknowledge a certain development since the Second Vatican Council, one which places the sacrament of baptism in, as he puts it, “a broader context”. That has taken four decades – the Council ended in 1965. If we transpose this timeframe to the HIV/Aids debate and the need for an adjusted theology in that area, then we would still face another 20 years before we are going to make any progress. How many more people will suffer and die from the disease?

Vatican II in its Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope) made it clear that the Church lives in the world and loves the world. “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ,” the Constitution’s opening words tell us. This means that we Christians have an obligation to assume all the conditions and circumstances of our fellow human beings. Therefore the suffering of an Aids patient in Africa has to touch a Christian in Europe or elsewhere. But have we even started to defer to this tenet of the Council? Or do we have to confess instead that our concern for the real human needs all over the world is generally only marginal?

Of course we can’t share their griefs and joys alone – Gaudium et Spes makes that very clear. To understand them we need competent partners; it requires, as the Pastoral Constitution recommends, “the special help of those who live in the world, [and] are versed in different institutions and specialties, and grasp their innermost significance in the eyes of both believers and unbelievers.” In other words, a fruitful partnership between the spiritual and temporal spheres is essential. Only then can the Church, in the spirit of the Pastoral Constitution, really be Church.

In my experience as a priest, this partnership can develop only if the Church is up to date, if it stands with both feet in modern times. By that I certainly don’t mean that it must pander to the world and adopt a relativism that makes concessions to the Zeitgeist. Rather, I am calling for a serious confrontation with the complex realities and scientific insights of the present. In short: in our ecclesiastical thoughts and actions we must account for the dramatic progress of the 21st century: the destruction of creation, the wars and excess of violence in all corners of the world, the growing disparities that derives from globalisation.

Every year some 8 million people starve, and a billion drink contaminated water every day. A GEO report said that the world’s 500 richest people own as much as the 416 million poorest. The affluent West prospers on the back of the so-called Third World. These are obscene realities.

Why doesn’t our whole Church speak out about this more frequently and loudly?  Why does it allow Jesus to be crucified a million times over every day? At the beginning of the US-led invasion of Iraq, Pope John Paul II protested loudly and in strongest terms. Why is it so rare that we hear the voice of the whole Church when there are so many murders in Iraq, Darfur and Chechyen? Where are its indictments when a nation whose green banknotes declare “In God we trust” persecute individuals in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and all the other torture chambers around the world?

We must restore a human shape to our message. I believe that too often we lose ourselves in theological bickering and don’t look too closely into the face of He who radiates God’s mercy: Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Word made flesh. It is He who became the Brother of us all, who through his actions made God’s message tangible. It is He who looks at us through every human face. “I was in prison, and you did not visit me” (Matthew 25:36). We meet Christ even among prisoners, those who have been found guilty in temporal courts! This is the truly revolutionary attribute of Christianity: The man from Nazareth, around whom we like to theologise, cannot be separated from historical Jesus incarnate. But sometimes we lose sight of the human dimensions of God’s message. And sometimes we stop trying to look for the lost sheep and tend to them, and instead of imitating Christ, we insistently and fearfully cling on to our supposed certainties.

We need this human Christ, the one born in Bethlehem, who suffered for us, died on the Cross, was buried and rose again on the third day, as we profess in the Apostolic Creed. We need this living link between heaven and earth, this true God and true man, so as to accept our fellow human beings as our true brothers and sisters. But our Church leaders often consider it an attack on the magisterium if we emphasise the human nature of Jesus too much. Recently, in 2007, the theologian Jon Sobrino from El Salvador was admonished for doing just that. Although the Vatican voiced its support for his work with the poor and the oppressed, it also accused him of distorting the essence of Christ and downplaying His divine nature.

In my view such verdicts require great caution, because when we forget our spiritual source and the human incarnation of God and His permanent immanence in our times, we will no longer find our way and begin to stumble. It is in people who carry the virus that we encounter the suffering Christ, who becomes human in them. And the same goes for all other suffering people – the hungry, the tortured, the slain.

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, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Free to travel – but only if you’re healthy

Stefan Hippler

Free to travel – but only if you’re healthy
Many countries don’t welcome the HIV-infected

Bonn, March 2005. I have the honour of participating in a consultation meeting of the German ministry for economic cooperation. The purpose is to discuss a draft bill on the subject of “Solutions for the government on HIV and Aids”. I landed up in this illustrious company by sheer coincidence, and now scan the briefing documents before me. I am surprised at the statements put forward by the Church’s aid organisations represented here. They are wasting a golden opportunity to make binding recommendations in the decision process.

At some point I can’t hold myself back any longer. A chapter on the issue of travel freedom for HIV-infected people is so vague that I simply have to enter the discussion. I propose that the German government clearly and unambiguously endorse this freedom – a right, after all, which modern societies take for granted. Anything less should be regarded as discrimination. When I’m done, there is much murmuring in the inner circles; the official representatives are conferring with each other. After a while I am advised that unfortunately such an explicit recommendation would fall outside the scope of the bill, because the state could not always abide by it. From their rather fuzzy clarifications I understand that it seems to be not necessarily desirable that HIV-positive applicants should be allowed to study in Germany.

Saarbrücken, almost exactly a year later. I’m visiting a family which has taken in a South African child. The relevant government department, the foster parents say, has made it clear that the adoption of an HIV-positive child would not be approved. The international Hague Adoption Convention, signed by Germany and about 75 other states, does not authorise such restrictions. But the bureaucrats don’t care one bit about that.

These two examples illuminate why it is so difficult to fight against discrimination. It isn’t just individuals who discriminate, but also states and their organs. A particularly notorious example is Australia’s rigorous deportation policy. In April 2007 then-Prime Minister John Howard proposed to deny all HIV-positive asylum seekers and migrants entry into Australia. Likewise, the United States used to turn away HIV-positive asylum seekers at their port of entry and abolished the rule recently. Other countries, such as Germany, apply veiled restrictions.

All of these forms of discrimination are politically intolerable and ethically repulsive. And yet increasing numbers of state take these types of measures and restrict the travel freedoms of HIV-positive people. They are treated like outcasts. Regrettably, my Church has yet to register its vociferous protest, even though it calls for the prevention of stigmatization and ostracism. The average citizen should be made conscious that infected people are as human as other people.

But in real life there is a collective fear of infected people, and these fears manifest themselves bureaucratically in travel bans, in forced testing and in the refusal of work and study permits. The official excuses are always the same: the burden on the health system, the spread of the pathogen through accident or sexual contact, and so on. If they don’t want HIV-infected people coming to their countries or adoptions of HIV-positive babies, then these states and political decision-makers should just unequivocally say so and stop playing their hypocritical games. In doing so, they would say bluntly: we are acting to protect our population. But medically, that would be nonsense, as a 2004 UNAids study has shown so eloquently.

Here in South Africa, every child is taught at school that HIV-positive citizens must be treated like any other. But in practice it’s a different story altogether. That’s why I keep asking myself how we might get people to not stigmatize and discriminate. How can we persuade relatives, friends, colleagues or bosses to follow the standards of equal rights? And how are we to interpret a bishop’s dutiful Sunday sermons if he never raises his voice in defence of the stigmatised? Most of our Church leaders are relentlessly silent on that injustice. After all, there are more important matters to get worked up about, such as same-sex partnerships. These issues sap their strength; so how can they still be expected to muster the energy to intervene on behalf of their ostracised and disempowered brothers and sisters with the virus in their blood?

But if one doesn’t let them into the country, then there is no need to deal with the problem. What a merciless, globalised world in which everything moves – commodities, capital, services, information – except 40 million HIV-infected people who are told to stay where they are. For a South African baby in Germany or a Kenyan student at a European border the message is clear: Keep out! And all that happens, as I found out at the consultation in Bonn, with the silent consent of those who represent our Church.


In October 20057, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited together with a delegation the HOPE Cape Town Association. Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, who was part of the visit, promised to approach the then German Minister of Interior Wolfgang Schaeuble to clarify the rules of visa applications in connection with the problem of HIV and AIDS. The consequent correspondence between the two ministers clarified that there are no legal grounds to reject a visa application on the grounds of HIV and AIDS. This makes the named cases even more unjust, as civil servants seem to take the law in their own hands and taint them with their own prejudice.

In August 2008 I approached officially the German Catholic Bishops Conference to enquire about their dealing with this highly ethical issue. I was told that there has never been any statement in this concern but I was promised that one would look now into the matter. A year later I received news that the German Bishops Conference does not see any need to deal with travel restrictions.

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, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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

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