Magazine article U.S. Catholic

There Is a Balm in Tapologo: Ravaged by HIV/AIDS, Women and Children from a South African Squatter Camp Find Hope at a Volunteer-Run Clinic

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

There Is a Balm in Tapologo: Ravaged by HIV/AIDS, Women and Children from a South African Squatter Camp Find Hope at a Volunteer-Run Clinic

Article excerpt

Two years ago Selinah was lying on a mat at the altar of the Catholic mission in Phokeng, South Africa. Weighing only 86 pounds, she shivered with fever as the AIDS virus took over her body. Surrounded by other patients of the Tapologo AIDS Hospice, run by the Catholic Diocese of Rustenburg, she prayed for her life as the community anointed her.

"My only hope was to pray each and every day that God would give the [antiretroviral] tablets the strength to heal me," she says. Every day she sang a song of hope. Translated into English, the song says, "You must be strong. You must be brave ... We will find the way."

Now she's back to a healthy weight of 120 pounds and is filled with the urgency that only a brush with death can give. She was elected as a community representative in Freedom Park, the squatter camp that sits near the edge of the platinum mines where people come from all over South Africa and its neighboring countries to find work. When people in her neighborhood have a problem with the housing commission or any other governmental agency, Selinah navigates the red tape on their behalf.

Now 39 years old, Selinah has given birth to three sets of twins--six boys--but also had to bury three of these children. Four years ago, she had a girl and named her Karabo, which means "answer," because she finally got a girl child. Unfortunately Karabo also became sick, so Selinah brought her to Sister Georgina Boswell, one of the founders of Tapologo and a registered nurse. Karabo was diagnosed with HIV, and then it was time for Selinah to reveal the secret she had kept for seven years: She was also HIV-positive.

Now she sticks to her strict regimen of antiretroviral medications, with which she has had amazing success. She goes to the Tapologo clinic in Freedom Park every Wednesday to pick up the medicine for her and her daughter and spends time visiting with the other patients. Together they pray and sing. At the clinic it is mostly women and children, but the range in age is broad. These are the ones who have HIV but are healthy enough to live at home.

When they become too ill, they are transferred to the inpatient hospice, a 20-bed facility on the campus of the Rustenburg diocesan mission that was built to give people a place to die with dignity. It actually has a survival rate of almost 50 percent. Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg attributes the high rate of discharge to the stark contrast between the conditions of the hospice and the conditions of the patients' everyday lives. The people in the community live in abject poverty, many sleeping in shacks made of pieces of corrugated tin or zinc. They have no running water or sanitation, and most do not have enough to eat. So when they are placed in a clean, comfortable, and loving environment with proper medical care and enough food, the potential for improvement is enormous.

The state hospitals are notorious for poor care and long waiting lines. And astoundingly most do not even have antiretroviral treatment available, despite the fact that South Africa is home to 6.5 million people who are HIV-positive. Many theories, from lack of funds to criminal neglect, circulate as to why the government has failed to address the pandemic.

After the government, the Catholic Church has the largest network of programs addressing HIV/AIDS in South Africa. Dowling sees places like Tapologo as the most natural Catholic reaction to the suffering of its people. "Our most important mission as a church is to heal the wounded in our midst and work for justice. The Catholic Church should be a compassionate, caring, people-centered church," he says.

Dowling tells the story of a little boy named Nelson, who came to the hospice from the public Rustenburg Hospital, where he was dying of AIDS and related infections. "He had meningitis, and it had gone to his brain. He became blind and was partially deaf," Dowling says. "And they sent him home because they don't care for people who are dying. …

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