Waking Up God

September 11, 2012

The black township of Kagiso is about 40 kilometers northwest of Johannesburg. Surrounded by old gold mining heaps, which blanket the town with dust when the wind sweeps in from the south, Kagiso is the home of “Mama,” as everyone calls her.  I met her in the front room of the community house named in honor of her daughter, Emily, who died in 2001.

Before she died, Emily Khwili Mabote converted a three-bedroom house to establish the Emily Jordan AIDS Centre with the help of donations from overseas.  She was the first person in the township to publicly announce that she was HIV-positive, a condition still stigmatized by local communities despite its prevalence. A report issued by the AIDS Foundation of South Africa estimated that 5.6 million people are infected with HIV, and 30.2% of pregnant women (aged 15-49) are living with HIV, while about 83,500 babies became infected with HIV through mother-to-child transmission. Over 300,000 people die of the disease every year.

These figures are tragic in itself, but perhaps the most moving fact is that HIV/AIDS has produced 1.9 million orphans.

Mama, aged 66, currently looks after five orphaned children, including three grandchildren. Unfortunately, her predicament is typical of what one finds in the townships.

In 1990, Emily was diagnosed as HIV-positive after a still-birth.  Over the next few years, her health fluctuated, punctuated with bouts of TB, until she finally died.  Before her death, she left behind a legacy to her community: a house where AIDS sufferers could go for moral, religious, and medical support.  The Emily Jordan House opened six weeks before Emily died.

Christianity is evident everywhere in the House, from biblical quotes to a clock with a picture of Jesus at its center.  A dispenser of condoms sits on the mantelpiece below the clock.  Mama believes that prayers are important in the struggle against AIDS.  “We must wake up God,” she says.  Regrettably, not everyone in the township shares Mama’s compassion or willingness to translate faith into action.

A volunteer at the center, Johanna Mogale, related that it was very sad to see how people living with HIV/AIDS are treated by their own communities. “In many cases people do not even want to touch them, especially when they have wounds and do not want to share utensils with them for fear of contracting the disease,” said Mogale. “These people need love and support. In most cases relatives do not want anything to do with them and hide them when their condition deteriorates. You will be shocked to find a sick person living alone in a cold shack in the backyard and not looked after.”

Families are embarrassed at the shame attached to HIV/AIDS. In fact, sufferers often only obtain appropriate care when they are retrieved by Mama and taken to the Emily Jordan House, or their health deteriorates to the point where it is not possible to keep them at home.  This feeling of disgrace is not helped by many of the established churches who ignore the impact of the disease in the pulpit.  Some congregations, however, do actively provide comfort to AIDS victims.

The manager of the Emily Jordan House, Daniel Ncedani Mvala, and volunteers attempt to meet the basic needs of AIDS suffers, such as providing food, comfort and massages for aching limbs. Daniel later takes me to a wasteland, where a small vegetable garden was established for the residents.  The soil is a rich brown color, and cabbages, potatoes, beets and spinach are being grown.  It is watered only from a mean trickle of a stream 100 meters away.  About ten kilometers out of Kagiso I passed the Krugersdorp golf club, where mainly white members chip their balls around ornamental lakes, which add a bit of interest to their game.  Such contrasts are all too common in South Africa, where political apartheid is dead, but economic apartheid is all too real.

When we return to the house, Mama has made us a cup of tea, and as we sit, two rowdy children come into the room, but become shy when they see a stranger talking to Mama.  She introduces them as Evelyn, about ten, and Lucky, a boy of about six.  She adopted them both when their mother, Anna, died of AIDS within six months of Emily. In these circumstances, the nickname “Lucky” seems inappropriate.  Mama explains that he was called Lucky because he was born disease-free after his mother had become HIV positive.

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