HIV/AIDS–The Toll Lives On

The infection rate for HIV/AIDs is declining in
Zimbabwe. But the toll lingers on in lives left torn asunder by this terrible
pandemic.



(This is the sixth post from Mutare, Zimbabwe where the General Commission on Communications of The United Methodist Church met Jan. 3-10, 2007. With representatives from Africa, Europe, the Philippines and the United States, this was the first meeting of the Commission (board of directors) outside the United States. The Commission supervises United Methodist Communications, the communications agency responsible for communications services for the global church.)


At the end of a long workday, a young boy sits on the front steps of a small adobe house set in the midst of a plowed field. He gazes expressionless toward the distant mountains. Evening breezes whip rivulets of dust into the air. A small clay pot rests angularly in the soil under a wood stick platform where cooking utensils once dried after washing. Every inch of this arid hillside land is cultivated right up to the house itself. But for the mountains, it looks for all the world like a scene from dust-bowl Oklahoma.

But this is the mountain highlands of southern Zimbabwe and the youth, Tenderakai, lives with his younger sister Priscilla in the house in the plowed field. Down the way a few hundred yards is his grandmother’s rondeval.

Tenderakai and Priscilla don’t know farm life. They were born in the city. They came from Harare in November when their mother died from HIV/AIDS. Their father passed away earlier, adding them to the twenty million children and youth orphaned by the virus. This is the farm of their widowed grandmother who lives has already taken in two other grandchildren orphaned by HIV/AIDS. The younger children live with her.

Despite a decreasing infection rate in Zimbabwe–an encouraging sign–the lingering toll of HIV/AIDS is the burden it leaves behind in disrupted lives. The grief of losing one parent is devastating for any child, but losing both parents and being uprooted from a familiar home environment to a completely foreign place is life-shattering.

Across Africa, the legacy of HIV/AIDS is the same. Grandparents who have reached an age when they should be cared for themselves are starting new lives with young children who, instead, require their care. Not that anyone has time to complain. Survival doesn’t grant one the luxury of self-pity and it doesn’t allow time for rest. There are mouths to feed, school fees to pay, uniforms to buy and fields to plant.

Among some, especially women, information about HIV/AIDS is no longer unsuitable for conversation. Road signs and billboards on school buildings urge abstinence and use of precautions such as condoms.

But an exchange in one of the sessions of our communications workshop was revealing. A young female AIDS activist spoke to the group of Zimbabwean religious communicators about interviewing AIDS-affected persons, and how subtle behaviors affect individuals sensitive about their physical condition. This was followed by a demonstration interview with a shy young mother with the disease.

As she speaks of the deeply intimate effects of the disease on her life and her infant daughter, giggles are heard at the back of the room. It is unsettling. A young women made a remark completely unrelated to the presentation and she and her neighbor laughed. But the rest of the group could not know this, and the young mother is crestfallen. It is awkward and exceedingly uncomfortable.

To the presenter it is a teaching moment, and she spares no lack of clarity in explaining the need for sensitivity when conducting interviews. Human dignity, if not compassion, demand respectful treatment, she says. Those who had created the discomfort are embarrassed but they learn an important lesson. An interview is a relationship and it must be conducted with care. Both demeanor and language are important.

The conversation turned to how the subject of preventing HIV/AIDS should be introduced to children. A young male pastor said it is inappropriate for fathers to discuss the subject, especially with their daughters. Some of the women in the group could not conceal their disagreement.

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