By Danusia Kaskia -
Journeying through Africa is an amazing adventure; from the unique geographical attractions, to the tantalising cuisines, chasing ‘the Big 5’ on safari, and not to mention the energetic warm welcome of the beautiful African people. However, there is another journey one can take through Africa, as seen through the eyes of the locals. This journey shows the overwhelming AIDS pandemic that is destroying African nations, and the poverty that is feeding it. A real journey through Africa has begun.
Bumping along the unsealed, pot-holed roads you arrive to Kasisi orphanage in the poor and dry country of Zambia. Kasisi predominately houses children affected and infected with HIV/AIDS. With 250 children to care for aged from three weeks to 20 years, and many sick with AIDS, the orphanage has a challenging time coping in difficult conditions. A heart-warming place to visit, the love and friendship shared amongst the children, sisters and staff brings hope to such an unbearable situation. Rows of cots with little peeping eyes from under blankets, children’s hands covered in shimma (a local maize dish) in the dining room, toddlers being potty-trained, gigantic smiles, and the melodic singing of children’s voices, are some of the sights and sounds of Kasisi orphanage.
Journeying north east to Kenya, the grass is definitely greener on this side, or so it seems. The developed and more civilised capital, Nairobi, gives a false impression of a better quality lifestyle.
Yet only several kilometres away from central Nairobi lies the largest slum in Africa and the world; welcome to Kibera slums. With little electricity or lighting, open sewers, rubbish that has been so compacted into the ground that it has become the ground itself; houses that are made from mud with tin roofs, and with between one to three million people living here, it was my experience of hell on earth. Churches of every denomination and description can be found in Kibera slums, along with hundreds of non-government organisations and the Society of St Vincent de Paul.
It was a great privilege to have the local Young Vinnies take me on a tour of the slums and describe what life was like to live there through their eyes; and they all had dreams and aspirations to support the people in their community, particularly in relation to the AIDS problem.
Out of the pollution and grime of Nairobi we head to a suburb called Karen, where the Daughters of Charity work. The Daughters of Charity have a dream, and that is to build the ‘DREAM’ – the Drug Resource Enhancement Against AIDS and Malnutrition centre. The aim of the DREAM is to care for and treat people with HIV/AIDS and malnutrition, to improve their quality of lives and to provide dignity and respect in doing so.
The concept of the DREAM can be seen fully alive and operational in Thigio, a rural part of Kenya.With more donkeys than people to be seen, green and lush countryside, Thigio is a very picturesque part of Kenya. There is no electricity, donkeys are relied upon to help retrieve water with buckets, and few houses are seen as they can not be afforded.
It is here that the Daughters of Charity opened a Voluntary Counselling and Testing (VCT) centre for HIV/AIDS. It is a very busy little hub, with immunisation and feeding programs, physiotherapy, home visits and medical assistance being available for the people. Within this complex each day runs a nursery school, groups for the elderly and disabled, and sewing classes. But most moving of all is the AIDS support group, meeting weekly to support each other, pray and worship together. I was touched by their incredible faith. They felt that they had so much to thank the Lord for, yet all I saw was utmost poverty and suffering. It was an extremely humbling experience for me when I was asked to address this group of 150, as I wondered what I could offer these people. Yet even more humbling was when I, with my non-medical background, was asked to conduct the medical checks of the AIDS patients the following day! There was such hope and trust in their eyes as I placed the thermometer under their arms, took their pulses and blood pressures.
Moving from sub-Saharan Africa we arrive south, to a country with a dark, blood-shed history. South Africa is now facing a bleak future with the horrific AIDS epidemic that is ravaging the population. The country is engulfed by this epidemic that has taken over as being the largest cause of death. Sadly, many people are still afraid to be tested to find the truth, preferring to be ignorant to the fact that they maybe carrying an infectious life-threatening disease. Unfortunately illiteracy, modern cultural attitudes on sexuality, and a lack of education perpetuate the spread of HIV infections.
The effects of AIDS is visualised in the billboards advertising HIV/AIDS prevention and testing. In Australia billboards are used to advertise the latest commodities; in South Africa their advertisements are full of information on AIDS prevention and testing.
In a notorious part of Johannesburg is Cotlands, an orphanage for HIV/ AIDS infected or affected children.The children who call Cotlands their home are the living reality of this generation. The harrowing effects of the AIDS tragedy in South Africa can also be seen in the eyes of the ‘grannies’ that have been left behind to care for their HIV-positive grandchildren, as their children/parents have passed away to AIDS. The ‘grannies’ outreach program, based in Soweto (part of the Cotlands orphanage), meet together each week to support each other.
The journey continues
Taking this journey through Africa can leave one feeling overwhelmingly despaired for the future of these African nations where up to 30 per cent of people are infected with HIV/AIDS. But there is hope. It is seen in the generosity of the people volunteering and working tirelessly to help alleviate the problem, and to lift the AIDS burden.
A change in behaviour and widespread education on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment is the only way to reverse this epidemic in Africa, and it has begun in South Africa and other nations. The ARVs, the miraculous life-saving medications have provided an improved quality of life to many AIDS patients in Africa, and have saved millions of lives, including in the Kasisi and Cotlands orphanages. The Daughters of Charity in Nairobi will hope the DREAM will do the same for many thousands of people in their care.
We all need to be on this journey together with our African sisters and brothers, to help them through prayers, awareness, and support of programs that are already uplifting many people out of their poverty and suffering.
This article is taken from the 2007 spring issue of The Record (TheRecord _Spring2007).