Adora Iris Lee - South Africa
Last year marked the 20th year that I have been working on the issue of HIV and AIDS. In 1985, when I began gathering and analyzing data for the Washington, DC health planning agency where I was employed, we were then calling this new disease "GRID" and "HTLV-4". The name "HIV/AIDS" was not to be known for a while. Nor could it have been known at such an early date, that this illness would have a tremendous impact on every single country and continent across the globe.
As we trace the history of HIV disease, it is fair to say that I am not a newcomer. Over the last 20 years of this pandemic, you can probably say that “I have been there, and done that!” I have been in boardrooms as an AIDS Administrator, meeting with community activists and politicians in the ‘80s, who felt that our health department’s response to AIDS was moving “too slow.” I have been in emergency rooms, as a Hospital Chaplain in the ‘90s, ministering to family members who felt their loved one’s life was being taken away from them “too soon.” And I have been at the bedsides of friends, in the year 2000 praying that my dying colleague’s incredible pain would not last “too long.”
But over the past 3 years, while working in the southern Africa region on the HIV/AIDS pandemic with local congregations, I am learning that the poverty, grief and family destabilization caused by AIDS must never be seen as “acceptable” or as “par for the course.” For when we grow accustomed to the staggering death toll and become unaffected by such a magnanimous loss, then HIV becomes the victor. This revelation became so clear for me on the day that “beauty” died.
When I say “beauty”, you may think I am talking about the “beauty” of South Africa’s southernmost Cape Point where the Atlantic and Indian oceans gloriously merge. Or you may think I am suggesting the kind of beauty to be found in a scenic drive to the Kingdom of Swaziland where the mountains, hills and valleys causes one to lose their breath, and say “When God created this land, God was truly showing off.” Or maybe you think I am referring to the “beauty” of the rushing waters of Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
As lovely as these scenes may be, this is not the type of “beauty” I mean. What I am talking about is a South African woman I knew, named Beauty, and the day that she closed her eyes and died. This day came not long ago. No one who was close to Beauty even knew she was seriously ill until she became too sick to move out of her bed and had to be taken to the hospital by emergency service workers. No one imagined her to have HIV, not to mention full-blown AIDS. But, because she was so sick, Beauty never, ever returned to her small, shared room in downtown Johannesburg. Beauty lived in an area largely populated by South Africans and Africans from other countries who have fled to the Johannesburg metropolitan area in search of work as domestic workers, gardeners, store clerks and artisans.
The day that Beauty died was sad for so many reasons. One reason is that she, like so many women in the southern Africa region, did not know her HIV status until she became violently ill. Who knows? She may have wondered if she was HIV- infected. But, the point is, that she really didn’t know because she had not been tested to learn her status. In a region of the world where stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS is alive and well, I can understand Beauty’s hesitance to take the test. However, I can’t help but think had she known her HIV status, she may have been able to avail herself of the care and treatment she needed.
What also saddens me is that Beauty’s untimely death did not give her the chance to make any plans for her children. Some HIV-positive women in South Africa have made their children ‘memory boxes.’ In it, they put pictures, letters and other keepsakes. They write notes telling their children how much they truly love them and encourage them to be strong. But Beauty has left behind no such remembrances. What she has left are two sons, one 19 and the other 10, who must now live from pillar to post, without the benefit of a domestic worker’s meager, though critical, income.
Another sad reality is that Beauty’s financial contribution to her family “back home” in the rural area will be missed as her mother seeks to care for all her grandchildren, while their mothers are miles away working in the city. I am very concerned about the poverty and despair that will be visited upon Beauty’s family because she has died. Who will feed her sons? Who will clothe her sons? Who will pay their school fees and buy them the required school supplies and uniforms? Who will hug them, discipline them, and guide them? Who will love them, affirm them, and encourage them?
The day that Beauty died forced these serious questions to the front of my mind. Not just for Beauty’s children alone, but for the 1 million other South African children who have become orphaned or made vulnerable because their mother, father or guardian has died of an AIDS-related illness. By the year 2010, it is estimated that the number of orphaned children in the world will have surpassed the 30 million mark. What will be our Christian response to these children, not to mention the families who care for them? Will they follow a similar path as Beauty’s sons, or will people of good will make a positive difference in their lives?
As a minister and health care professional, committed to addressing the AIDS pandemic in southern Africa, the loss of Beauty has caused me to become reflective. I am reflecting on the fact that her long-awaited opportunity for empowerment in a free and democratic South Africa will never be realized. Saddened because her children’s chance of breaking the vicious cycle of poverty may now be jeopardized. If nothing different is done quickly to prevent HIV infection and to reduce unnecessary AIDS deaths, then the children of this new, ‘apartheid-free’ generation, like Beauty’s sons, may never get to experience the life that their fore parents fought, struggled and died for.
As I think back on Beauty and the day that she died, I am reminded that though she is gone, I, and so many others, are still alive. What can we do for the countless other “Beautys” in South Africa and beyond so that her living will not be in vain? Every chance that we get to educate a woman about HIV prevention, or to take a woman to the local HIV testing clinic, or journey with a woman who is trying to create economic opportunity for herself and her children, we are making a difference in more lives than we can imagine.
As people of faith across the globe focus attention on the millions of women who are vulnerable and impacted by AIDS, it is my prayer that we do whatever we can to respond to this pressing need. Let us begin by organizing our Sunday School classes, church groups, social clubs, sororities and women’s organizations to respond to the critical issue of HIV/AIDS among African women. Let us remember the countless “Beautys” who live each day, and die each day, without ever realizing their full potential. And let us do something tangible to reverse their plight!
As for me, I will never forget the day, and the way, that Beauty died. And everywhere that I go, I will speak her name and tell her story! May our “Beauty-ful” Sister now rest in peace…
Rev. Adora Iris Lee
Adora Iris Lee serves with the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa. She serves as an AIDS consultant for the Southern Africa Region, which includes Lesotho and Swaziland.