Learning together about AIDS in Africa
People living with HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa are often targets of prejudice. Their HIV +ve status shifts their positioning within the community from the middle to the peripheries, with dire consequences for their overall welfare. Sometimes what is forgotten is that being HIV +ve does not make one less human; quite the contrary, sensitivity is often heightened in people with HIV. To forget this is to ignore their humanity.
In Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, a famous quote by Shylock poignantly describes this reality: I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? Shylock's words are a reminder that, lest we forget as a society, people with HIV will bleed when pricked, laugh when tickled and die when poisoned. As a community, our actions, inactions, words and silence towards people with HIV is symbolic 'pricking', 'tickling' or 'poisoning'.
I shared this quote recently during a conference organised by the African Jesuit AIDS Network (AJAN) in Nairobi; the conference was part of a book project initiated in June 2011, marking 30 years since the first cases of what would later become known as AIDS were reported. Sub-Saharan Africa has borne a disproportionate burden of the AIDS pandemic, with current estimates of 22.5 million people living with HIV, 68% of the global total. As part of the need for greater reflection on this pandemic, AJAN issued a call for papers for a book exploring the multi-faceted response to AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.
In late January 2012, AJAN invited the book contributors for a conference to present and debate their papers. Twenty-six Jesuits and their collaborators attended, representing a wide range of academic disciplines, from theology and philosophy to human rights and ethics to medicine, as well as considerable field and advocacy experience.
Those of us who responded to the AJAN call for papers did so for a number of reasons. HIV/AIDS is an important pastoral issue in our ministries. Many governments, especially in Africa, have yet to incorporate the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS into mainstream legislation. The dearth of legislation comes to the fore when we work with and for people with HIV at the global, national and local levels. We wanted to learn more about the pandemic and some of the best ways to respond.
At a personal level, I came to the conference with indispensable resources to help me understand more about the pandemic: the first is what in Ignatian parlance is called cura personalis, the second is an open mind to learn from fellow Jesuits and our collaborators. My contribution threw some light on the discriminatory practices, inequalities and unfair power relations surrounding AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. It was important to reflect on these issues because at the heart of our conversations was an understanding of the human being as created in the image and likeness of God and therefore as a rights-holder.
Our conversations drew attention to the 'signs of the time' visible around us in the AIDS pandemic, such as the problem of stigma, universal access to antiretroviral therapy, and poverty of resources. These 'signs', in turn, raised the question of 'what God is saying to us?' and 'where does he want us to be within this pandemic?' Even with limited resources, it was clear that God is calling us to be present to those who are infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.
I left the conference, as I am sure the rest did, with new insights about how different organisations, not least the Catholic Church, are responding to the problem at several levels. But, more importantly, I learned that God is calling us to help reveal his face in this pandemic.
What makes the AJAN project unique is how the day-to-day work with people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS has led us to a deeper understanding of an issue affecting Africa and the rest of the world. There is every hope that the book emerging from the project will make an important contribution to literature about HIV/AIDS and a deeper commitment to work among the affected people.
Isidore Bonabom SJ
Isidore, a Jesuit from Ghana, obtained his MSc in human rights and LLM from London School of Economics. He has just completed a doctorate in human rights law at the University of Sussex. His research focuses especially on rights-based approaches to law and policy-making, the construction of human rights, and women's rights in Africa.