One voice against silent killer

October 13, 2009

The above article was sourced from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/hiv-aids/news/article.cfm?c_id=500854&objectid=10486365 One voice against silent killer By Sheryl Garratt Pastor Mary (left) and her interpreter Sister Jane preach their message, calling for action to fight HIV/Aids. Are you a spectator? Or are you a participator?” Pastor Mary Crockett, a substantial woman in a white skirt suit, fixes the congregation with a challenging glare as she warms to this morning’s theme. Matching her pace for pace is Sister Jane, an even more substantial woman who is translating the sermon into Sesotho. It’s an awesome double act. Mary shouts, Jane shouts louder. Mary gets angry, Jane is beyond furious. Mary is sad, Jane is virtually sobbing. Sweat pouring off them in the heat amplified by the building’s tin roof, both women urge the congregation to examine their contribution to their community: “Do you have what it takes to make a difference in the lives of the people?” Pastor Mary is unusual in that she talks openly about a subject that is still largely taboo in South Africa. She talks about the sickness that has killed more than a million South Africans in the past three years alone, and she talks about how it is spread – and now infects some 18 per cent of the population. She talks about promiscuity among the young and hypocrisy among the married; about people who gossip, judge and reject those who are sick, rather than helping them. “What can we do to prevent this disease that kills in silence?” she asks, scanning every face in the packed church. “We need to take stock of ourselves, the nation is dying!” In QwaQwa, Mary Crockett, 46, is known as the HIV/Aids pastor. She preaches her message every Sunday, moving around 11 churches in the province urging action and shaking the collection plate to help her community organisation Pheko ka Kopanelo (Uniting For Cure). This particular church is in a relatively affluent area, she tells me afterwards. It is where the Government workers live, the nurses and doctors. Cars are parked in driveways, some roofs have satellite dishes. Yet Mary hasn’t collected the sum her organisation needs to build an orphanage here, a haven for children who have lost their parents to Aids. “They need to stop playing church and step up,” she says sternly. “It’s not just about clapping hands then going home.” People tell her she must be patient, but patience is not one of Mary Crockett’s virtues. She doesn’t have the time for it. A couple of hours later, we are walking around the training centre established by Uniting For Cure to help people with Aids support themselves financially. Here people who have been rejected by their families, sacked from their jobs or have never had paid work before can learn computer skills, hairdressing, how to make chairs or lay roads, or become part of Africa’s boom industry – coffin-making. She walks past the child-size boxes to the row of adult caskets leaning against the workshop wall, and says she’s already picked out her own. “You have to be realistic.” * It has been eight years since Mary found out she was HIV-positive, and six years since she settled in QwaQwa, opening the only Aids hospice in the area and dedicating her life to fighting the disease – and the silence and stigma that surround it. She is possibly the strongest person I have ever met, and it is only when we know each other far better, and when she is sure none of her volunteers, patients or congregation can see her, that she cries and confesses how terrifying it feels not to know how short life may be. QwaQwa is a poor, rural area three hours’ drive north of Johannesburg, up a long straight motorway surrounded by vast tracts of land, all of it fenced in and mostly owned by Boer farmers. Under apartheid it was designated a “homeland”, one of the ten tribal reservations established to reinforce racial segregation. About two million people are still marooned there, most dependent on meagre Government pensions or grants. Uniting For Cure’s hospice is nearby, a modern two-storey brick-built building surrounded by a high razor wire fence with a guard on the security gate. It has 18 patients, and a waiting list of more than 600 – mostly people who have been rejected by their families. The area’s only hospital is overstretched, so United For Cure has also trained volunteers to care for people at home, though the numbers are so overwhelming they cannot help all who need them. But although most of the people who come into the hospice are very sick, Mary and her team of volunteers fight for the life of every one of them. Those who do recover get support, vocational training, even housing if they have nowhere else to go. For this reason, and because of the stigma associated with Aids, the sign outside calls it a rehabilitation centre rather than a hospice. It also announces that Oxfam is a partner in the organisation, the only consistent source of outside funding – something that is perhaps surprising in light of South Africa’s relative wealth and the number of awards showered on the pastor for her work. But the country, especially in rural areas like this, doesn’t have the resources to cope with the Aids epidemic. It lacks doctors, nurses, clinics and hospitals equipped to assess blood counts and hand out life-prolonging anti-retroviral drugs. At times it seems to lack the political will to tackle the problem. As late as 2000, President Thabo Mbeki was denying the link between HIV and Aids. He has repeatedly refused to sack his Health Minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, despite international condemnation of her claim that eating garlic, beetroot and lemons could be as effective as taking anti-retrovirals. There have been signs of change. Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka appears to have taken over Aids policy, and has made clear statements than HIV causes Aids and that anti-retroviral drugs are central to the fight against the disease. But this information will take time to filter down to the general population. Volunteers at Uniting For Cure say that among the many myths they hear is that condoms carry the virus, rather than act as a barrier to it. But most of all there is silence, and silence breeds fear. Although South Africa is vying with India for the world’s highest prevalence rate, few people admit they are HIV-positive, or that friends or relatives died of Aids. A local GP says he struggles to get patients to agree to be tested, because they would rather not know. * Few believe that anti-retrovirals can prolong life, or that they would be able to obtain the drugs, and if you’re going to die anyway, why risk rejection, too? When Mary first moved into the hospice building there was no fence. A mob from the local community gathered outside with burning torches shouting, “We don’t want Aids here!” Terrified, she nonetheless went out to face them, spreading her arms out wide and crying, “Kill me now! Because if not, I’m going back in, and I’m going to begin my work.” Having seen the fiery passion of her sermon, I’m not surprised that the mob dispersed. Now the local people understand more, and on the whole they’re supportive. The man opposite works for the hospice, growing fresh vegetables in his garden. People bring donations of essentials such as soap and toilet paper, and when the hospice is running out of food – which is often – volunteers go door to door asking for contributions. But still people dump their relatives on the hospice doorstep in the middle of the night rather than admit to their neighbours there is infection in the family, leaving Uniting For Cure to care for them as best they can. In church, Mary talks about a girl of 12 who carried her dying mother for miles in a wheelbarrow because neighbours refused to help. By the time she got to the hospice, the mother was dead. Her daughter collapsed and is now in hospital, fighting for her life with Aids-related pneumonia. “People stay silent as long as they can because they don’t get the support,” she explains. “The minute they break the silence, they get rejected. You can lose everything – job, friends, home. It’s better now because there’s more education, but when I first told people I was HIV-positive, some people would say, ‘I don’t want to help you because I don’t want to be infected’.” Uniting For Cure has grown rapidly and is now the largest Aids organisation in the Orange Free State. Only 23 people take any kind of wage, but in a region where paid work is rare, Mary has built an army of willing volunteers. Anyone who receives help from Uniting For Cure is expected to then take part, and more than 80 per cent of the volunteers are HIV-positive. The organisation runs support groups, education programmes, information and advice services. One scheme places HIV-positive babies with adopting families, then rehouses them so they can make a fresh start without anyone knowing the baby’s history. Uniting For Cure has built more than 100 small but sturdy houses for orphans made homeless by Aids, and runs a feeding programme in schools to give orphans at least one meal a day. I visited one such school, where several students sleep in classrooms because they have nowhere else to go, and many more live alone or with grandparents who struggle to survive on meagre pensions. For these children, the free meal can be the only time they eat. Mary doesn’t take a salary from the organisation. She sleeps in whichever of its four buildings is closest and eats with the patients at the hospice. To qualify for free anti-retrovirals, patients have to show a CD4 count of less than 200 (CD4s are the white blood cells which lead our bodies’ fight against infections). Since Mary’s count is above this level, she relies on donations to buy her own life-prolonging drugs, at a cost of about $570 a month. * “That is my only challenge,” she smiles. “The treatment. Otherwise, I’m ready to work, I’m ready to do everything.” On Sunday afternoon we went back to the hospice, where I met Pulane – although I’m not sure she was aware I was there. Grey-skinned and stick-thin, a shadow of an 18-year-old, she had only hours to live. The staff didn’t have a full name for her; she’d been dumped outside two week ago, so ill that she could only whisper her first name. Pulane died that night. By the morning, when we returned, another patient had been collected and was lying in her bed. Mary officiated over the lonely funeral the day after I left South Africa. Before we parted, the pastor took me to the graveyard where she buries her charges. She is the only one keeping count: “It’s 298 so far, including the babies.” Broken heart and family Mary Crockett doesn’t know where she was born, or which of South Africa’s tribal groups she belongs to. She was found abandoned in a coloured area of Johannesburg as a baby, and was raised in the city’s orphanages. One day in class, the teacher caught Leonard, one of the other orphans, writing a love letter. “Mary, I love you more than a chicken in the oven,” it said. “Meet me at the gate.” After graduating from teacher training college together, the couple were married and had a baby boy two years later. They settled in the El Dorado Park area of Johannesburg, teaching in primary school and active in the church, where both were lay preachers. Thirteen years were to go by before a second child, Cynthia, was born. In retrospect, Mary can see that her daughter was never really well. Her husband fell ill with what he said was diabetes. Her own health hadn’t been so good, either, but she put that down to being pregnant after such a long time: she was 38 when her daughter was born. Then one Saturday morning when the baby was nine months old, they set out to the shopping centre as usual, but their car smashed head-on into a truck. Leonard and Cynthia died instantly. Mary survived, although she was in a coma for three months. When she came to, she learned that her husband and daughter had been buried by the community. The doctors also informed her that she was HIV positive. It was only after she’d recovered, and found the suicide note in their safe at home, that she realised the collision was deliberate. After her husband had discovered he was HIV positive, he secretly took their daughter to be tested. When she proved to be positive too, he decided that the best course of action was to kill them all. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/hiv-aids/news/article.cfm?c_id=500854&objectid=10486365 Shared by craig lock (“Information and Inspiration Distributer”) mhtml:{ABCB567A-7EFF-4A7F-A7BD-7E253BADFE90}mid://00000068/!x-usc:http://www.selfgrowth.com/articles/user/15565 http://www.craiglockbooks.com http://www.selfgrowth.com/experts/craig_lock.html The various books* that Craig “felt inspired to write” are available at http://www.creativekiwis.com/books.html http://www.lulu.com/craiglock and http://www.myspace.com/writercraig All proceeds go to needy and underprivileged children – mine! PPS: Craig’s new blog (with extracts from his various writings: articles, books and new manuscripts) is available at: http://craiglock.wordpress.com/wp-admin/index.php?page=my-blogs “When the world is filled with love, people’s hearts are overflowing with hope.” – craig Uplifting, encouraging and empowering people through the power of words and thought energy. Change YOUR world and you help change THE world… for the better” Don’t worry about the world ending today… it’s already tomorrow in “little, scenic and tranquil” New Zealand

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October 13, 2009

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