Having spent February and March of 2002 in South Africa, running my Free To Be Me! workshops, speaking at an international conference on AIDS and in co-facilitating AIDS workshops, I realised the link between AIDS and the relationship we have with ourselves and with one another. In that amazingly beautiful and diverse country, the differences we create between each other were thrown up into my face and I couldn’t but ponder how so many with so much give so little and those with so little can still keep giving so much.
Robert Mugabe, in Zimbabwe, was currently building his fourth house at a cost of around $NZ4 million, while millions of his countrymen starved for the lack of a loaf of bread. The same was happening in South Africa where the government spends in excess of $NZ7 billion on arms, per year, to defend itself from an imaginary and non-existent invader, while it has stock-piles of antiretroviral drugs (brought in by non-profit organisations and confiscated by the government) which could be saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of South Africans. These insanely wealthy individuals head a government that is refusing to provide Mother To Child Transmission (MTCT) pills to pregnant mothers to stop the transmission of AIDS from HIV mothers to their babies. There are no side-effects to these drugs, they do no harm to non-HIV mothers and they are a one-dose pill that costs seven rand – about $NZ1.35. While Health Department personnel were flying first-class to other countries for a talkfest (a conference), in expensive hotels, that provided no positive action, I visited a rural clinic that serves 18,000 people and it only had two packets of Panadol – no bandages, no disinfectant, no nothing – in an area where over 60% of the people are HIV positive!
Hell, it seems to me, is not a place we go to when we die but the people we meet here on earth. So is heaven.
In Kwano-zame, a township in the Big Karoo (Xhosa for desert), about four hours drive inland from Port Elizabeth, a group of eighteen-year-olds performed at two of our AIDS workshops and they were not only brilliant actors and musicians, but they stirred my heart. Their passion is in spreading the message of AIDS awareness in prisons, schools and anywhere else they can. With no training, they have created an amazing educational and unforgettable artwork that cannot help but move one to tears and laughter as they bring the AIDS message in the most powerful way I could have imagined. After the first show I took some of them home and was aghast at their living situation. Four teenagers live with their father and their only income is his meagre pension which can only stretch to feed him. For the boys to survive and pay for food, school clothes, school fees, instruments and costumes, they have to rely on the generosity of impoverished friends and their ingenuity in running a small deodorant manufacturing business. The house was several sheets of galvanised iron, standing on end to form a square and covered in tar building paper. There was no door (just a hole in the iron), the floor was dirt and there was no food in the “house”. There is no unemployment benefit or any other government assistance in South Africa (apart from the meagre pension) and if you cannot feed yourself, you die.
That they had so little and still gave so much was an inspiration to me and an affirmation to the possibility of the human spirit.
We later visited two AIDS sufferers. One was a middle-aged woman with a husband and two teenage children and it was a guess as to whether the AIDS or starvation would kill her first. There was no food in the house and her husband had no work. Such is the shame of AIDS, she had not told her family of the reason for her illness and her reasoning was, “I don’t want to hurt them.” We pointed out that if she didn’t tell anyone, there would then be no back-up care for her children and that her silence would hurt them so much more. We left her to think about disclosing her AIDS status and about finding friends or family who could take care of her children when she died, which she did three days later – we’re not sure where her children are now.
Of the 60+% of South Africans who have HIV or AIDS, over 60% of them are married, heterosexual women and you may wonder at the connection of that group of people with the predominantly homosexual men and drug users who have HIV/AIDS in white western society. Let me give you a hint:
The black (and some white) women in South Africa (generally) are completely subservient to and reliant on their men for all decisions and, in that patriarchal society, women effectively have no rights. In fact, they often have less rights than the family dogs. If a man wants sex he simply demands it, there and then, and the woman can never say “No”. To have sex with many women is the mark of a “real man” and so most married men pursue a life of being married to one woman and having sex with many women. What this does to a woman’s esteem and feeling of powerlessness is beyond my comprehension and I can only wonder at the lack of respect and the abuse we perpetuate on one another. While it takes “two to tango”, it takes an incredibly brave and strong woman in such a society to say “No”. The consequences would be unthinkable.
Obviously, there are physiological reasons for the spread of AIDS in such a society – if a woman is constantly forced to have painful sex, she is never lubricated and, because of that, the possibility of vaginal rips and tears that allow the infection in is increased many-fold. My simple knowing is that there are also emotional and spiritual reasons that promote to the spread of this invisible invader and it seems to be a feeling of powerlessness and a lack of respect.
In white, western society those who head the AIDS statistics are homosexual men and drug users – those who many see as the dregs of society. The public perception of these people is also shared by many of the sufferers themselves, believing that they are the least respected and most powerless people in their community. The huge amount of courage needed to declare one’s homosexual preference attests to the powerlessness and lack of respect that is rampant in our society.
One of the speakers at the Port Elizabeth HIV/AIDS conference was Mnumbeko Mpongo, a 27 year-old black woman, from Cape Town, who had contracted HIV by being gang-raped three years previously. She had no ill feelings towards her attackers and, in fact, was thankful to them for she realised their gift was to take her life on a far more meaningful path, to finding the means to heal herself completely of HIV with natural remedies and life-style changes and to becoming a health worker for the Cape Town council. In her passionate and moving speech she said that she didn’t need our sympathy or our acceptance for she had come to respect and accept herself, no matter what the outside world threw at her. She also called AIDS the AfrAIDS, for it had become the new disease for the untouchables, the thing that most people were most afraid of.
Are you beginning to see the link between respect and AIDS?
My strange mind has this picture of a God pointing out to us, with AIDS-stained fingers, those who most need our compassion and respect. That AIDS has become the new leprosy, those with it have become the new untouchables and it behoves us to consider that disease is not a punishment for wrongs done but a place to start looking at how we respect our own and other’s bodies, emotions and spirituality. The relationship we have with ourselves and with others has an amazing bearing on our physical, emotional and spiritual health and that we have such a rampant disease tells me that we could do much to enliven our planet with simple remedies.
While drugs can arrest the progress of HIV and AIDS, the final answer may, in fact, lie in something far less tangible and less expensive – the simple and powerful caring for one another and by respectful human contact and relationship. The cost is a smile or a gentle touch – I wonder at the benefits …
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