AFRICAN WOMEN BATTLE AIDS
By Patty Butts
In November of 2000, I accompanied my husband on a trip to Botswana, my first trip to Africa. On the flight from Johannesburg to Sua Pan, I overheard parts of a conversation about the AIDS epidemic in the country. A fourth of the population had AIDS or was HIV infected. By the year 2010 it was estimated there would be 40 million orphans. I had heard of AIDS in Africa, but it had never been so close to me. Suddenly the words struck me like lightning. These children were like our children, but they would not have even one parent.
My first husband died of cancer when our oldest son was ten, another son seven, a two-year-old daughter, and I was expecting a baby. It was very difficult for my children. How excruciating it would be to lose both parents. Why couldn’t this be reversed?
As the plane landed on the desolate private airstrip, I noticed a few towering baobab trees silhouetted against the desert landscape. My plan was to study nutritional healing while my husband consulted at the Botash plant. But there were other plans for me.
When I stepped off the plane, I was introduced to a gracious woman whose assignment was to entertain me for the week. Immediately, I was attracted to her warm and winning way and delightful accent.
Dinner was arranged at the Country Club later in the evening and I was informed the schoolmaster would be there to answer any of my many questions. The Big Question was “What are the children being taught about eliminating AIDS for their generation and generations to come.”
At the compound, under a huge tree that canopied a sand patio used for barbecuing, sat two African men and three women dressed in crisp turquoise-colored maid’s uniforms. They were soft spoken with kind and gentle dark eyes. They nodded their heads when we said, hello.
Over the next few days I would learn much about the African people in Botswana and Sowa Town, the nearest town to the Botash plant. Unlike Johannesburg and South Africa, Botswana was fortunate to have an honest government and a miniscule crime rate. Ruled by tribal clans, they had no use or tolerance for firearms, pornography, sexual crimes or theft. Their people felt safe from crime. I felt safe. Their biggest terror and problems were AIDS, unemployment, and poverty.
During dinner, I found the schoolmaster, a tall man with a hefty frame, a jovial chap who liked to talk. I questioned him about AIDS and the impact on the school children. His answers were disappointing. I didn’t agree that safe sex and condoms were the only answer.
It was a company school for the Caucasian and African children of the nearly 700 employees who worked at the plant or serviced Sowa Town. Built by the company in the late 80’s, Sowa Town was populated by over 2000 residents, most of them African, and was a boon to the unemployment problem. For the black child, the private company school was an elite opportunity that assured them of a college education and a life other than poverty, something not likely to be gained at the Sua Pan School operated by the republic of Botswana.
“Some of the children will not be able to continue at our school,” the headmaster said as he bowed his head sadly. “Their parents have AIDS. Only children of employees are allowed to attend.”
Christa Blake, wife of one the chief engineers had been listening intently to our conversation. Recognizing my passionate concern about AIDS, she whispered to me, “I’m on the AIDS Coalition.” Here was someone I wanted to talk to. We arranged to meet in the next few days.
During the restless night, I dreamt of crying children. While awake, I agonized over the AIDS problem. Suddenly it came to me! WOMEN….the women in Africa could conquer the epidemic. The cry of orphaned children….”waaaaa.” “WAA”, the acronym for WOMEN AGAINST AIDS. If three or four women got together and each of them met with three or four other women, soon the whole town could join in the fight against preventing the deadly disease.
In the morning I had breakfast in the small, nearly vacant mess hall. One of the cooks spoke good English and our casual conversation soon became a meaningful friendship. As I expressed my concern about AIDS, she became very interested.
“In many African cultures, a women must become pregnant before a man will marry her. Fertility is a big issue, and the man will not always marry the women he has impregnated,” Shulume told me. As she continued, I realized that fidelity was not an attribute of relationships.
“If you are ever to win the war against AIDS, that must not continue. Women can change that! What can you do about it?” I asked.
“All a women has to do is say, “No,” and a man can do nothing,” Shulume emphatically told me. “Our country does not tolerate rape.”
That seemed easy enough to me, but as I was to later learn, it wasn’t as simple, as women saying, “No.” The unemployment rate in some communities is as high as 93 percent. Here it was the women who were underemployed. They didn’t consider themselves prostitutes, but it was common to give sexual favors in exchange for food and a place to live.
As I visited the school that morning, I was impressed with the uniformed children, boys in crisp khaki, girls in light blue dresses. As we entered each classroom, the children stood and said, “Good morning, Master Jensen.” There was no disrespect here; they had reverence for authority and their headmaster. These were gentle sweet children. As I gazed at their faces, I wondered how many of them would lose their parents or even their own lives to AIDS. How many would be able to continue their schooling?
Later in the day I met my husband at the compound. We walked a short distance to the weather station so David could check some data. It was there I met Peggy, a beautiful, tall, thin African girl in her late twenties. She was dressed in a long navy blue jumper and white blouse and could have been a New York model. Peggy was one of the meteorologists at the plant. As she explained the weather data to David, I observed how delicate and fragile she was….then I noticed circles of sores on her legs. Instinctively I knew she had parasites…perhaps even in her blood stream, but not AIDS. She smiled at me and there was an immediate connection between us—spirit-to-spirit, soul-to-soul. Peggy had been educated in Nigeria and was also on the AIDS coalition, which led to our long discussion about AIDS. She was not only willing, but also eager to participate with other women in combating AIDS and thought it was a great idea to have women reaching out to other women in the community.
As I questioned her about her health, Peggy said she had been feeling ill for several years, but doctors had not been able to help her. I told her it was possible that she had parasites and suggested natural remedies like garlic, cloves, and a diet that was close to vegetarian. When her ride arrived, she asked me to come back in the morning to continue our discussion.
At dinner that evening I met more people who volunteered to help with the project: the company doctor’s wife who was an advocate of natural medicine, an engineer, and the wife of another engineer.
After dinner, I saw Shulume at the compound. Her eyes were glistening as she said to me, “ I have read from the book you gave me and I know it is true.”
Before the sun was up the next morning, I was pacing the floor thinking—thinking about cottage industries. Would cottage industries work here? Could cottage industries help the unemployment and poverty problems? What protocol could be used to help prevent AIDS? I jotted some notes and watched for Peggy to arrive at work. When the van pulled into the compound, I waited fifteen minutes before heading to her office. Excited to see me, Peggy introduced me to Maggie and Reginah who were also on the AIDS coalition.
When I gave her notes on a possible protocol to prevent AIDS she said, “ We know that God has sent you here.”
Her words surprised me because I really didn’t want to go to Africa, but did want to support my husband on his trip. In October my doctors said I would be unable to travel because I was suffering from exhaustion. My husband and gave me a blessing and promised me I would be well enough to make the trip.
After brainstorming with Peggy, Reginah, and Maggie about forming groups in the community, I was off to Sowa Town to meet with Christa Blake and other women about AIDS and the possibility of starting cottage industries. In the four days I was there, I met with four groups of women who made plans. These were strong, spiritual, God-fearing women. I knew they could make a difference in their community. Sadness engulfed me as I left Sua Pan and my new friends. I wished that I could stay longer.
When I arrived home I sent herbs to help strengthen the immune system, a list of holistic treatments from medical doctors for AIDS, patterns for craft and clothing, and the address and phone number of microcredit groups that lend money to start small businesses. I waited and wondered how the project was doing. It was four months before I heard from Peggy.
She wrote, “The content of your letters was of much help to me and our community. I believe you were an angel sent to our country to pass the good news. We presently have twenty-four groups and committees. (At the time I was there they had only the AIDS coalition). We are just about to open our own AIDS Testing Center here in Sua Pan. We have been having daily prayers in the many committees. I have been following your instructions on improving my diet and using herbs and my health has improved tremendously. I have passed your letters on to top officials, and they have appreciated it very much.” She also said they would be starting groups in other communities. I realized they could be a model for all of Africa.
It was a good start.
It is amazing to me what these women accomplished with prayer and the help of the Lord.