Helping to Fight AIDS in Africa 

by Margaret Lumpkin Keon, former WCW Overseer and longtime friend of the Centers
Spring 2004, Westover Magazine

In June of 2003, I was privileged to travel to Malawi with four other members of the board of the Global Aids Interfaith Alliance, or GAIA. Although only three years old, GAIA has been amazingly effective in its work to reduce the incidence and stigma of AIDS, and to educate and train religious leaders and lay people. Having the opportunity to be in Malawi and see the beauty of the country and its people, as well as the devastation of poverty, hunger, and illness, was an important experience, one I shall never forget.

Malawi is a small country, landlocked, north of South Africa and bordered by Zambia and Mozambique. The population is roughly 10 million, and the official AIDS rate is 15%, a gross understatement. There is one doctor for every 57,000 Malawians. In the entire country there are only three pharmacists, one pathologist, and no dermatologist. The health budget allows $3.50 per person per year. Only recently have they acknowledged the AIDS problem. The official government policy demands abstinence, no pre-marital sex, no extra-marital sex — this in spite of the fact that traditional practices encourage young people to engage in sexual activities when they reach puberty.

We divided our time between Malawi, the capital, and Blantyre, to the south. We attended parts of a conference we had arranged at the request of religious leaders. Most of the 40-plus attendees were men, but there were perhaps six women, at least two of them Roman Catholic nuns. Malawi has a large Muslim population which was not represented at the conference, but Muslim leaders have requested a similar conference, which will take place this spring. Our attendees were Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Anglicans. The conference was designed to permit considerable time for discussion in small groups, tackling such issues as the role of women in the church community, orphan care, how to reduce the stigma of HIV/AIDS, the value of testing, the use of condoms, and home-based care for the ill.

GAIA, along with others, has long recognized the importance of strengthening women in order to give them information and tools to prolong their lives, and to be there for their children. In Malawi, the greatest risk factor for a woman to become infected is, sadly, to be married. Traditional beliefs require women to turn over their earnings to their men, to submit to the men sexually, to have large families. With such beliefs embedded in the culture, it is indeed challenging to assist people to begin to think differently. The sincerity of the conference attendees was unquestionable, even as they struggled with new concepts. There was a strong sense of conviction in the voice of one man who said, “Please don’t just have this conference and then go away.” Indeed, the small groups were designed to bring together people who were geographically close, so they could form their own support network and continue to come together. Each individual left the four day conference with an action plan, and each small group had developed goals aswell as techniques for their implementation. They also discussed how they would monitor their progress.

Our group visited hospitals in the area. One hospital averages about 1,000 births a month. Women are encouraged to come for pre-natal care, and for delivery of their babies. To our surprise, in the room where women lay on bare beds without a mattress or even a blanket, just prior to delivery, there wasn’t even a whimper! The hospital is seriously understaffed, and medical supplies are hard to come by. We saw a woman who had delivered a stillborn, and had four children at home. She had lost considerable blood and was severely anemic, but there was no blood for a transfusion. A member of our group donated a pint for her.

Currently the only successful business in Malawi is the coffin business. If people are not ill themselves, they are constantly attending funerals, thus absenteeism is a constant problem. Employers cannot keep trained people, because so many become too ill to work. One of the American aid workers with whom we spent an afternoon said that 50% of the professionals in the country would be gone in another year: nurses, teachers, and aid workers.

Children are the most heartbreaking victims of all. There are thousands of orphans, many living on their own. Many are caring for younger siblings, some “heads of family” being as young as eleven years of age! We visited orphan feeding stations, where often the aim is to provide one nourishing meal a week for the children. Good nutrition is a major part of treatment for HIV positive people, as well as a preventive measure. But one meal a week is woefully inadequate, of course.

The children are barefoot, ragged, dusty, and thin. Many have distended stomachs, many have nagging coughs. TB and malaria are often the cause of death for HIV-infected persons. They are dressed in castoffs from the US; T-shirts from Harvard, Yale, and other prominent educational institutions are frequently part of their attire. What an irony in a country where there is an 87% failure rate for secondary students. Education is not free in Malawi, and the cost of school is a challenge even in families with a working parent. It’s easy to see why illiteracy is rampant.

In Blantyre we spent time with the women who are part of the GAIA program to strengthen women, thanks to a grant from the Gates Foundation. Originally referred to as women’s empowerment, the program is now referred to in terms of strengthening the family, as gender issues are a strong force in this culture.

Transportation is an enormous issue for our local trainees. Their areas are large, and flooding in the rainy season makes many villages inaccessible and many roads impassable. One of our decisions was to make small motorcycles available to them. We also provided them with cell phones. Both have been an enormous help as they go about their work.

The women we have hired and trained are educating villagers about the cause of HIV/AIDS. They are teaching infant care, home-based care for the ill, and nutrition. They are also providing funds and training for women to develop income-producing projects such as baking bread for sale, raising goats to sell the milk, and sewing projects.

Of the many places we visited, perhaps the most heartwarming was the Open Arms orphan-care facility run by a “retired” English couple who fell in love with the country when they were traveling as newlyweds. Open Arms aims to provide care for orphans from birth to two years of age, and whenever practicable, to return them to their villages. This is becoming more and more difficult, because of the scarcity of food, and the fact that many heads of household have too many to feed and clothe already. The staff knows that more than half of the babies will die before they reach the age of two, and are committed to the goal of having each child die in the arms of someone who really cares about them. With luck, the others will be assimilated in their villages, where their care and development will be supervised on an ongoing basis by Open Arms staff. Some of the babies have been brought in by older siblings, who are encouraged to visit when they can. Older siblings are given moral support, as well as training. They learn about gardening and nutrition, composting, and other activities they can take back to their villages. Other babies have been abandoned, one in a cemetery. In fact, sometimes a live baby is buried with the mother who has died in childbirth, because there is no one to care for the baby.

As we bade farewell to the Open Arms staff, I could not help but to think that there is a “master plan.” Malawi, indeed all of sub-Saharan Africa, is in the throes of a disastrous calamity, struggling against the overwhelming challenges of ignorance, poverty, hunger and illness. There are times when the tragedy seems unbearable. But to see these people, with their courage, their beautiful smiles, their appreciation for all that is offered, is to give one hope. These are indeed our brothers and sisters, we all share the same planet, and have common responsibilities to it and to one another.

Reprinted, with permission.


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