A lot of what we discuss during Spirituality and Health week at the Centre is theory. Much of what we are learning is difficult to learn in any other way: Christian Ethics was our first topic. Healing and wholeness are topics discussed every week. Discipleship and Counseling are just two topics, among others, that are yet to come. While each of these lessons will (hopefully) play a role beyond the classroom, it is helpful to begin there first. We must understand what (Christian) African Ethics are and why they are important if we want to live holistic Christian African lives.
The same was absolutely true this week as we entered into another delicate but essential topic: HIV/AIDS. It is essential that we as community leaders are well informed about HIV/AIDS, for as we talked about this week, it impacts everyone. If one is not infected, they are affected. Everyone agreed this is true in all of our communities, even if we are unwilling or unable to talk about it. It cannot be ignored any longer, and this week our students learned all about it.
What do we do, then? How can we prevent further spreading of HIV if some communities will not even acknowledge its existence beyond the works of witchcraft? No one said it would be easy, but we all agreed, the key to preventing further infection always comes back to one thing: education!
The students learned this week that education starts with the basics: how does one get infected? There are only three ways: can you name them? You may successfully avoid means of further infection from now on, but: do you know your status today? What if your neighbor, friend, or kin discover they are HIV+? Do you know what that means? Do you know the ways you will NOT be infected if you continue to interact with them? Do you understand testing HIV+ means a lifestyle shift is in order, and that it does not mean the positive person is facing a death sentence? In many places today, if medication (ARVs) are needed, they are distributed for free! As are means of prevention of spreading the virus, such as condoms. To discuss sex, condoms or STIs is not easy nor is it often welcome in public domain, but it is necessary.
This is what we are aiming for at Espoir: ways to take all the theory and facts we are learning in our lessons in the classroom, and move out into the community to share them. This is the goal of each of our students when they return to their home countries in July. We must practice and have experience before we begin to teach, however. So this week, each of our students took one day out of the classroom to visit a VCT clinic. Many had never seen one before. Some had never been tested. This changed for many of us at SHADE as we (students and staff) were (voluntarily) tested together. We then stared fear in the face as comfort was thrown away so we could personally visit HIV patients with trained home-based caregivers. What was the most common response upon returning from visits? “They looked so healthy! I never would have known…”
The Methodist Church of Southern Africa has a campaign that says, “The Church has HIV/AIDS.” We - Christians - have AIDS. We - the body of Christ - have AIDS. We - SHADE - have AIDS. Who is your “we?” Perhaps you are infected. Perhaps you are affected. Perhaps you are both. You can only know for sure if you are willing to know your status. Get tested. Get informed. Get involved. Share your knowledge. HIV is real and present and - for now - here to stay. What are you doing to help change that?