Signs of the Times: A reflection on AIDS and the women of South Africa

Hearts of Life Pin

Reflection from World Day of Prayer Service

(pdf version)

This reflection was given recently by Zaida at the World Day of Prayer Celebration at Trinity Aurora Anglican Church, in the Diocese of Toronto.
Good evening all and thank you very much for inviting me to worship with you.  I am honoured and humbled by your invitation.  When I first spoke with Rev. Alan Ferguson and later with Betty Innis, I soon realized I have been given the opportunity to share a special day with you: World Day of Prayer. Thank you for this.

I will begin by giving you some information about my background.  I am originally from Angola.  I work for The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, the international development wing of the Anglican Church of Canada.  I am the Africa Program Coordinator,  and I also happen to be in charge of our projects in South Africa.

My work in South Africa gives me the privilege of witnessing the struggles and victories of this incredible country.  South Africa stands as a beacon of peace in a continent filled with adversity.  In spite of its horrific past where human beings were made to believe that inequality was a way of life, and that there were superior human beings and inferior human beings, the country has emerged as a vibrant society that proudly calls itself the “RAINBOW NATION”.  They have a lot to be proud of, but the challenges ahead are still huge!

Today’s worship service was written by women in South Africa and I can understand why.  A big percentage of the people with whom I work in South Africa are women.  They represent diverse backgrounds, races, and beliefs.  They play an incredible role in shaping the social environment in which they live.  They are active in their communities.  They are hands-on community leaders.  Their energy, commitment and selflessness are humbling.  Today I want to share with you some of the work that these incredible women are carrying out in their communities.

Women For Peace
Women For Peace is a Johannesburg-based organization that receives support from The Primate’s Fund.  They came together during the apartheid times.  Black women, white women, Asian women, decided to defy the artificial barriers that the apartheid regime imposed on them and looked for what united them as women.  As they explained to me, they all had children and wanted a better future for them.  They did not believe that the apartheid social construct would provide that for their children.  They still remember with fondness the risks that they incurred by socializing together, working together, strategizing together, and fighting together.  Courageously these women created a space, free of divisions of class, race, and religion, where they can be themselves and support each other.  Today this organization is still going strong.  They are passing the torch to a new generation that at times has difficulty understanding the historical risks that their predecessors took.  Women For Peace members are active in Alexandra, Etwatwa, Kagiso, Embali, Lenasia, and other suburbs surrounding Johannesburg.  They animate conflict resolution workshops in churches, schools, workplaces, and other communities.  They provide skills training for unemployed youth and women. They also assist people living with AIDS, among other important work.  Their work is unassuming and low key, but has made a difference in people’s lives.  They do not make the newspaper headlines but for each woman or youth that they help lift out of poverty, they are unsung heroes!  Some of the names of these courageous women are Julie, Patience, Ana-Paola, Wendy, Sylvie and Leela, to name just a few.  Tonight, we honour these women!

Soweto Home-Based Caregivers Cooperative
In Soweto, PWRDF works with the Soweto Home-Based Caregivers Cooperative.  Fifteen middle-aged women pound the streets of Soweto providing homecare to people living with AIDS.  They operate mainly in the Doornkop area.  However, their services extend to other neighbourhoods such as Central Western Jabavu, Zola and Emdeni, Zondi, Senaone, and Moroka.  

More than 300 families are benefiting from the compassionate care that these women provide.  They wash patients, clean their houses, cook their meals, but most of all, they listen to their stories of rejection and sorrow.  Too often, the caregivers are the only contact that the patients have with a world that has rejected them because they have AIDS.  The caregivers are a small battalion of foot-soldiers in the fight against AIDS.  However, their work has a profound impact on the lives they touch.  Last year, I spent a week with them and accompanied them on their journey.  I saw patients who were on the threshold of death.  They were frail with ashen skin, their bodies were covered with pustules and their eyes expressed deep sorrow.   But I also witnessed the infinite love that these caregivers put into the care that they provided to their patients.  The smile of infinite gratitude that covered the patients’ faces was a testimony to the quality and dedication of their work.  These caregivers are: Mable, Mashidiso, Anastacia, Middam, Elizabeth and Doreen, to name just a few.  Tonight, we honour these women!

One of the patients I visited with Middam was Jo Sambo, a homeless man from Mozambique.  Middam had succeeded in finding him temporary lodging.  His wife had died the previous year after a long and painful disease, which by the description of the symptoms appears to have been HIV/AIDS.  As I observed Middam wash him, prepare food, and chat with him about this and that, I couldn’t help but admire her.  Middam’s easy way of interacting with Jo was full of care and concern.  After finishing the cleaning she sat down by Jo’s side and began massaging his limbs.  Jo’s eyes were full of gratitude.  I could see in Jo’s eyes that Middam was the angel that GOD had sent him.

Point of Light Project in Benoni and Etwatwa
Veronica Alberts works with the Point of Light Project in Benoni and Etwatwa, another project supported by PWRDF.  This project brings together women who are HIV positive and are in an advanced stage of the disease.  The project workers help these women speak about what is to come, prepare for the unavoidable end, and help them build ‘Memory Boxes’.  These are boxes that the women will leave behind for their children when they pass away.  They cover them with beautiful floral fabric and then fill them with letters, pictures, family mementos, health records, and other meaningful memorabilia.  One woman put her high school diploma in her box.  She was the first in her family to graduate from high school and wanted her children to value education. In her opinion, education was their ticket out of poverty and ignorance.   I had the privilege of sharing a meal and spending an afternoon with this group of women.  It was truly humbling.  It was an experience that I will never forget.  These women were younger than me, and they knew that their days were up. They desperately wanted to write letters for their children and prepare the boxes with the memories and lessons that they wanted their children to preserve and remember.  I was honoured to be allowed to read some of these letters.  They were full of concern about their children’s futures and advice on how they should live their lives.  These women knew that they would not be present to guide their children through life.  The children that they were leaving behind were 6, 8, 10, or 14 years of age.  Too young to have no mothers!   I could feel the anguish in each letter, in each written word! One woman wrote:  ‘Don’t go out at night!  Nothing good happens at night!’   Another had this advice to give to her five year old son:  ‘Always find time to pray.  If you have time to pray, God will find time to listen to your prayers!’  A third woman began her letter to her four children with: ‘Rules of the House’.  Then she listed a daily routine for the children to follow, as if she were leaving on a short trip.  These women knew that the end was coming quickly; still they had the courage to face it head on.  

Hearts for Life pin
The women of the Point of Light project are participating in a Hearts for Life pin project for PWRDF’s HIV/AIDS initiative, Partnership for Life. These red and white finely-beaded hearts are being sold for $5 with $4 going directly to our AIDS work around the world.  I have a letter with me from Veronica describing the women who worked on our latest shipment of pins.  These women are:  

  • Zodwa Kunene — a patient, caring for 3 children of her own and her late sister’s child
  • Siphiwe Maseko — a patient, looking after her two children as well as her 2 orphaned grandchildren.  She only made 9 pins as her eyesight has been affected by a bout of shingles, a very prevalent opportunistic infection of HIV/AIDS
  • Dineo Mokoena — a patient with 3 children
  • Evelyn Motoadi — a patient with 3 children
  • Buyisiwe Xhakaza — a patient with 5 children
  • Phindile Maringa —  eleven years of age with the orphaned grandchild of Mirram, one of our caregivers.

The letter ends by saying ‘We thank our dear Lord that we are able to make these pins.  They come with much love and the hope that those who wear them will get a sense of the courage these women have’.  And tonight, we honour the women of Point of Light that as they stand on the threshold of death still having the courage to send us their love.

Courage and Hope
The key word here is courage!  I am always surprised and inspired by the courage of the women I meet in my work!  A courage that is driven by hope and faith!  The theme chosen for this year’s World Day of Prayer is ‘Signs of the Times’.  And as stated in the preface of the worship service, Christians recognize Christ as the true sign of the times, indeed the sign of hope for all times.  Christ is indeed the sign of hope in these times with HIV/AIDS and so much sorrow.  Christians also understand that faith cannot be separated from society and its problems.  AIDS is afflicting South Africa as no other problem has challenged this country before.  However, in the midst of so much pain left by AIDS, I also see the courage of a nation that has overcome great challenges.  In every corner of the country, I see signs of hope and this is my message today.  There is hope!  The work and lives of the women that I meet are testimonies of resilience and selflessness.  Let’s join hearts and hands, give of our time, energy, and funds, and together overcome AIDS.  

This we ask in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.

View more stories on: Africa Stories, HIV/AIDS Stories, Women Stories