World AIDS Day

aids ribbonDecember 1st is World Aids Day. Ntuthuko Nkosi shares his perspective on this day as a South African. 

World Aids Day is one of the most important days on our South African calendar. It’s like a mirror yet again it’s more like binoculars. It reflects us where we come from as a people and projects where we are headed to.

Aids and other related infections have swept our people more than civil wars and apartheid government did. This pandemic terrorized our villages and townships like a plague. It left homes with no parents and made parents out of children. In all, it suffocated life out of our villages.

This day does not only bring us into tears as we mourn the deaths of our brothers and sisters. But this day calls us to salute all those who were killed for disclosing their statuses. These are/were the modern prophets and prophetess who died carrying an important message of life.

In this day we again salute our care givers nurses and family members. Mostly the family members who treated us with love and got infected. With their love our brothers and sisters died physically but their spirits rested in peace.

We celebrate with the ones who are affected and who have been mentally positive in their new healthy lifestyles as they adhere to the medication.

Today is a day of victory, as we have won the battle of stigma which has brought us to a new and lived reality that HIV/AIDS is not a life sentence.

A Blessed World Aids day.


NkosiNtuthuko Nkosi will be ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa (ELCSA) in 2016. He also serves as an Ecumenical Advocate with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel as well as as a member of Kairos Southern Africa.



Care Not Cure

Rachel writes about the HIV/AIDS ministry of which she is a part and how it is shaping her understanding of service and caring:

Each Tuesday, “from 8:00” (meaning anytime after 8:00) I receive a phone call.  “Rachel!  Come!  I’m on the taxi!”  I rush up the road to the small local market where the shared taxis pass through my neighborhood.  My brisk pace, skin color, and Tswana greeting elicit giggles and stares from those that I pass. I wave to my left at the crèche children who scream, “MAMA RACHEL!” and to my right at the primary school kids who scream, “AUS RACHEL!” Once I make it to the main road, I wait at the corner, shielding the hot sun with my umbrella and wiping beads of sweat off of my forehead.  Taxis fly by with their horns hooting and hand signals flashing.  No stress about doing the correct hand signals to flag down the correct taxi.  On Tuesdays… I just wait.  Eventually – a taxi screeches to a halt in front of me and a warm voice from inside yells, “Rachel, my baby!  Get in!”  I crawl into the rickety 9 passenger vehicle, bringing about more surprised giggles as I hug Mme Moruti and show off my Tswana greeting to the others who have already boarded.

This is how I get ‘picked up’ each week for my time spent with the HIV/AIDS ministry ladies.  We arrive in the rural community of Wintervelt, meeting our third counterpart and continuing our journey by foot (passing the occasional goat along the way.) My love for Tuesdays grows each week as I continue to explore the power of presence in times of trial and chronic illness.  In the last few weeks, I have seen both extremes of the quality of life that those who are HIV+ experience.

The first was in the face of a middle-aged man.  He appeared weary, weak and discouraged, shivering despite the warmth of the sun.  He had had quite the week, battling an uncontrollable “running stomach,” fatigue, and confusion.  His visit to the clinic the previous day was the first time that his wife had heard of his HIV+ status.  The virus had been hiding until this point, unrecognizable to the naked eye…and he kept it that way.  But now, his shame and fear were out in the open, revealed by the full blown AIDS related illnesses that had recently hit.

I witnessed the other extreme in the face of a middle-aged woman.  She was jolly, full of belly laughs, and proudly showed off her plastic bag full of medications.  Two years ago, she was so “terribly ill” that her 17 year old son had quit school in order care for her.  When we arrived this week, she was busy bathing her grandchild and sprung up from the floor to greet us all with a hug and ear to ear grin.  She wasn’t shy to share her clinic card with me, displaying her medication regiment and check-ups.  When I told her how great she looked, she motioned to her pills and replied with, “It’s the ARV’s!”

The majority of both of these stories weren’t translated and explained to me until after our visits, as we walked along the dirt roads to see the next patient.  For most of each of the visits, I hadn’t a clue what was being said and in turn, had nothing TO SAY.  My eagerness to learn and help and use my gifts as a Registered Nurse made this all too frustrating for me.

This week, I have been busy reading Henri Nouwen’s, “Out of Solitude.”  In this short collection of meditations, he reflects on what it means to care.  He says,

“Still, when we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand.  The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerated not-knowing, not-curing, not-healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”

Well…I sort of had no choice but to be silent.  Two weeks ago in the front yard of that man’s home, I looked right at the face of despair and touched the hands of confusion.  And in that moment, had to embrace my very own powerlessness.  I arrived at his home (via a foreign form of transportation) with little knowledge, no cure, and no healing power.  But we sat in solidarity, both of us uncomfortably restless on rusty lawn chairs, not quite sure what was coming next.

Although the ladies that I accompany do come with advice, guidance, and wisdom, I know with all my heart that it is their ability to be silent and share in others’ pain that make their ministry so powerful.  I rarely understand what is being said, but recognize the most beautiful active listening imaginable.  I wish I could bottle up the sincere, “ooooh” and “mmmm,” that emanate from their souls as they intently listen to the joys and sorrows of their patients.

This is a lesson that I am, and will continue to be grateful for.

I think and wonder and panic about my RN qualifications often.  What will I do when I return to the US?  Don’t ask me yet.  But I know that this new perspective on human despair, wellness, and joy will come with me in whatever I do.

“To care means to first of all empty our own cup and allow the other to come close to us.  It means to take away the many barriers which prevent us from entering into communion with the other.  When we dare to care, then we discover that nothing human is foreign to us, but that all the hatred and love, cruelty and compassion, fear and joy can be found in our own hearts.”

-Henri Nouwen, “Out of Solitude”

Life Is Precious…Serve the World

Now at the half-way mark, Kyle articulates the impact this experience is having upon his life:

DSC00966Here’s an email I wrote in response to a question from youth in Delaware and Maryland. Their pastor reached out to the YAGMs for reflections on our service. 

What experiences have you had in South Africa while serving, and how do you plan to bring back what you have learned?

The experiences that have impacted me most in South Africa have been my encounters with life and death. Within a couple months of coming here, I was settling in to my role as a Home Based Caregiver visiting all elderly folks with different afflictions. It was hard seeing the suffering and depression of some, uplifting to see others recover, and heart warming to be universally welcomed with open arms into people’s homes. Then one day we got a new patient, and I was surprised to greet a young man one month older than myself crippled in bed with tuberculosis. Every breath was a struggle, every movement agony, and his feet were inexplicably swollen to three times their normal size. After a couple weeks, his condition deteriorated and he was brought by his family to the biggest hospital in Africa: Chris Hani Baragwanath. I find its size and location indicative of the myriad health problems here as it’s on the outskirts of Soweto, a 20 minute taxi ride from my house. My partner and I visited him in the hospital and did our best to offer encouragement, but he was visibly fading. We hoped that the doctors could help him, but his liver failed a few days later and he passed on. His name was Bongani.

The only person close to me I’ve lost is my grandmother, and while Bongani and I weren’t more than acquaintances, I was shaken. From his age and the hip-hop posters on his walls, I could see myself in his bed. Watching life carry on in his absence was disorienting. The hardest part was seeing other TB and HIV patients in his ward, all frail and trapped in their disease addled bodies while family members tried to feed them, or brush their teeth, or change their clothes. Unfortunately, life sometimes feels cheap here. The people are strong, but the pulse of hope is weak. Every weekend I hear of a funeral, and I’m told it was worse at the height of the AIDS epidemic. In Soweto, seventy percent of people are unemployed, over a quarter are HIV positive, and the education system is failing the children trying to escape from the cycle of poverty. These are harsh realities that I’ve learned not to talk around because Sowetans don’t beat around the bush.

In light of all this, it’s even more painful to hear stories from mothers and wives of their children and husbands shot over some cash in a wallet. It’s even more painful to read in the newspapers that over 1,500 South Africans died in automobile accidents during the month of December (many because of alcohol). It’s even more painful to watch people my age self-medicate with drugs and alcohol because their talents are squandered by poverty and lack of opportunity. The violence people inflict on themselves and others in my community is heartbreaking.

So the first part of my message is this: life is precious. There’s already so much disease, poverty, and suffering in the world, that the evils we enact on our friends and family are inexcusable. Every person encountered on a daily basis is a person worthy of love, and dignity, and respect. Those closest to us deserve the deepest of love and care. We are all neighbors, and the greatest commandment is to love our neighbor. From love for our neighbors, we must name our failures, and then act. The poverty created by our global economic structure leads to armed robbery, drunk driving leads to fatal accidents, experimenting with addictive substances will not lead to true peace and happiness. I feel called to speak as widely as possible to this effect upon my return to the US because in spite of my bleak presentation, Soweto has a beautiful spirit, a character that gives me hope. I see it when I tutor children who have memorized multiplication tables on their own initiative. I see it when HIV infected and affected people work at DAM to make a difference in the community. I see it in the dancing and singing of people in the streets. This year has allowed my empathetic side to flourish, which means that as much as I feel the pain of my community, I get to share equally in their joys. My course of action will be to speak about YAGM, but not to sugar coat it. International service is a wonderful thing which can change the world in the following manner:

Travel changes the lens through which we experience the world in a way that makes the seemingly trivial events of life more magical. This sense of magic and wonder creates gratitude in the heart for things such as coffee, sunsets, and understanding greetings in foreign languages. These are quotidian situations in which there is beauty and connection to our shared humanity. But the beauty can so often be swept under the rug when in a familiar setting. Through the simple gratitude travel fosters, respect for life, specifically empathy, is cultivated. Empathy is one of the most important qualities in people. It allows us to release attachment to the greed which creates the current global situation of growing inequality and mass impoverishment. It does this because we can begin to truly see each new person we meet as our brother, sister, mother, or neighbor and identify with their suffering. It breeds global communion. How could the US endlessly bomb and destroy nations such as Iraq if our citizens had traveled there and met the “insurgents”? If they saw the children who are collateral damage? How could the death penalty be legal if we truly cherished the lives of our brothers and sisters? I think it’s telling that peace makers such as Jesus, Gandhi, and Thich Nhat Hanh have been increasingly global travelers with the progression of technology. Thus programs such as YAGM are the start of a chain reaction which I believe is crucial for all people, but especially for people in a position of privilege to experience. It is a cure for one of the most important things I’ve learned in YAGM: “The benefactors of structural inequality have the hardest time recognizing it”. US policies reach so far that we must become increasingly conscious of acting with empathy.

The second part of my message is this: get out and serve the world. I want to encourage travel and service to people of all nations so that we know our global neighbors and can act from empathy instead of ignorance. Life must be viewed universally so that we don’t forget the downtrodden and voiceless. I also plan to join efforts to pass an amendment against the death penalty, because a government enacting or even allowing violence against its own citizens in a legal framework is deplorable. I also believe that it has a negative impact on the psyche of the public to live under such governance, and portrays us negatively to the world. One of the first three comments I get from people when I tell them I’m from Texas is…”you put people to death there don’t you?” Talk about holding up a painful mirror of how we are viewed internationally. Laws are a human invention, but the sanctity of life is fundamental. Violence does not solve or deter violence. I plan to bring this back with my words, and with my actions. As much suffering as I’ve witnessed here, I’ve also shared daily in the joy of waking up and living life. I choose to hold on to the joy while I work to alleviate the suffering.