A MOMENT IN AFRICA
In June 1999, I had written an article for Contact, a health magazine of the World Health Organization on “Dying in Dignity.” It was a personal account of my husband’s death. My husband Kumar, was a young doctor working with the Leprosy Mission in India. He died of liver failure caused by Hepatitis B. Several months after I had written the article, I received a warm and caring letter from a young lady in Kenya offering her condolences. We began to correspond and I learnt that Margaret Auma ran a programme for AIDS widows in Kisumu, Kenya. Margaret invited me to be a guest speaker at their annual get- together in Kisumu later that year.
This was my first trip to Africa, the Dark Continent. From Nairobi, I took a short flight to Kisumu in western Kenya in a tiny bird like plane. We flew really low so that we could have a good look at Mount Kilimanjaro with its snow covered top, and at the many species of wild animals and birds as we headed west towards Lake Victoria.
Kisumu, situated on the banks of Lake Victoria, is one of oldest towns in Kenya. The people here are of the Luo tribe, very dark skinned and of Christian descent. Traditionally they are fishermen and cattle grazers, but the fishing industry has almost died due to heavy pollution of Lake Victoria, and cattle grazing is now left to women. In the bars in and around the town the men sit around drinking beer waiting…….. on the side of the streets are coca cola booths where young men sit listening to rock music or dance all day and night. For there is nothing much to do in Kisumu. Although they are of Christian descent, tribal culture and superstitions pervade much of their thinking and daily living. Into this atmosphere AIDS found an easy entry.
AIDS IN KENYA
An estimated 30 percent of the local population had HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The most recent U.N. statistics predict that, across Kenya, half of the girls who turn 15 this year will be infected with the virus during their lifetimes. Here among the Luo, the second largest of Kenya's tribes, that projection reaches 70 percent.
Left to their own devices, people applied the knowledge they had. Among the Luo, there was a word for persistent diarrhea, rashes and weight loss. "Chira" was illness brought on by a variety of causes. Traditional healers knew what to do: Pour a bit of one herb into a calabash, mix it with a second herb, have the patient drink it. But people were not getting any better. In fact people were dying and dying quickly. Men who had gone away to other towns and cities came home when they feel sick, came home to die. Although their final sickness and deaths were private, the burials were not.
An African funeral is a major occasion for the community - a ritual of eulogy, burial, feasting and music that lasts an entire day. Traditionally, that day is Saturday. But by the late '90s, so many were dying that there were burials on everyday of the week. At the funerals despite warnings from health workers nobody really believes that a virus transmitted through casual sex can kill.
The Luo also practice widow inheritance. When a husband dies, one of his brothers or cousins marries the widow. There are homes where all the males have died because of this widow inheritance. Thus Kisumu has many widows and orphans and many women and children who are infected with the HIV virus.
Margaret Auma, a young Kenyan belonging to the Luo tribe began Springs Ministries to minister to the young widows of Kisumu. A teacher by profession, she felt called by God to begin a mission which would minister to widows. Margaret took me around the villages where her team of community workers work with widows. In the Kunya widows group I met Mary. Mary was short and almost plump, with the shiny dark skin that characterizes the Luo. Her hair crinkled close to her head was covered by a black and white polka dotted scarf. It was impossible to put an age to her. “ How old do you think I am,” she teased me. “ Fifty? ” I said, hoping to flatter her a little. She was much younger! Her eyes clear and chocolate coloured showed immense sadness as she took me round the little village. “ There are no men in this village,” she said, “ They have all died of AIDS.”
The children are listless, many of them sick and malnourished and paralyzed by the grief of losing both parents and often also brothers and sisters. Mary explained that Africans love children. She pointed to three small children, whose parents had died earlier that month. “ We cannot turn these children away. Where will they go? So we look after them. They stay with us and we are now their family. Yes they are also infected with HIV and will soon die, but we will take care of that too.”
The December 2000 Widows Conference brought about 125 widows from the Nyanza province of Kenya and twenty five young widows from neighbouring Uganda to Kenya. The conference was for three days and was held in the Lutheran School for the Handicapped, Kisumu.
The day began with a time of praise and worship and welcome. The women welcomed me with a beautiful song and dance. The songs of the women of Africa are songs of thanksgiving and hope, sung with great courage and solidarity with one another. But they are also songs of unbearable sadness and pain, especially the pain of loss. Although many of them had just met for the first time, their melodious voices blended in perfect harmony with each other. The Ugandans sang with their characteristic yodels and the rhythmic shaking of their shoulders and hips. The Kenyans clapped their hands and danced with graceful movements of the feet.
In spite of the joyous music, the women looked sad and tired. Many of them had travelled all night and had left children behind with neighbours. Their faces looked drawn and dark with tiredness. I knew that some of them were also sick.
The subsequent Bible studies helped the women to identify themselves and their situations with many women from the Bible. Together we explored what grief and loss meant to each one of us. Some of the women had lost husbands, lovers, fathers, brothers and sons and until this point had never openly expressed their sadness and their loss. Some of them had been inherited for a while, some had stood firm and had left the family base and had started out and struggled on their own. There had been no time to grieve or mourn the loss of the man in their life. This opportunity to share their stories allowed them the luxury of delving into the depths of their hearts to discover the sources of their pain. Having discovered it they then had to face it again and live through the experience and finally allow it to leave their lives. This experience of sharing and listening brought much healing to many women. As we shared our fears and revealed our deepest needs to each other, warmth, gentleness and humour flowed between us forging a bond of togetherness and a wonderful sense of belonging. A joyous feeling of moving from loneliness to togetherness.
The ice in their hearts had been broken. During the three days we had we shared our grief, our ways of coping, our faith, our explanations and insights into the mystery of pain and suffering. The women spoke of the pain and difficulties they faced having to live with HIV and sickness in one or other of their family members. The spoke about the problems of being single handed care- givers. We spoke about hope, faith and the final acceptance of sickness and death that often brings healing and peace to tortured souls. We shared our persisting uncertainties and unanswered questions. We understood and upheld each person who had been through grief and loss. We cried and held each other’s hand. We gave our confused and painful feelings words and found that words brought much healing and comfort. The soul of Africa can be felt through its music and dance.
Periodically the women would get up and sing, when someone shared a sad story it would be a song that said, “ Oh Lord, give this sister strength.” And when someone shared a story of hope, it was a wonderful song of thanksgiving, complete with tambourines, claps and the energetic dance that conveyed to all what a mighty God we have.
We also looked at the various aspects of loneliness and shared ways of easing it. At first it seemed to the women that there was very little in their lives that offered hope and comfort. But as we shared we realized that the best things in life were in fact the small things that we take for granted. A walk, a friend, flowers, a book, music, a time of prayer and so on. The women were able to identify these from their own lives. We looked too at the need to move away from old lives to build new ones. No longer were they a wife, some had lost children and thus were longer mothers, so they needed to find new identities. This again was a time for sharing, of gaining confidence and hope from listening to others. We learnt not to reject our brokenness, but looked at ways of using it to enrich our lives and relationships. The idea of “ a wounded healer” was very new to them. Slowly they began to see ways in which they could bring healing to others through their own experiences.
Almost every woman was now a single parent and they shared the difficulties and worries of raising children on their own. African tribal culture is slowly being eroded by media adverts and western style living. Dance halls, bars, and cafes have replaced other cultural get togethers. The consumer life style reflected in films and music videos attract youngsters who are anxious to be part of the “in” crowd. Parental authority is flouted and many single mothers found this the most difficult aspect of raising teenage children. We explored ways of holding the family together. Finally we looked at the many things which still gave meaning to our lives.
When I first came to Kisumu, the women addressed me formally as madam. At the end of the first day they hugged me, and held me in a close embrace and called me “ Mama Usha ” …….mama is the affectionate and respectful term given which means ‘one of us’. It took great courage for the women of Kisumu to talk about their lives, to share their feelings, their pain and grief, to verbally confront their anger and the many inner conflicts loss has dealt them. For this they were rewarded with the blessings of a sense of belonging, friendship and love.
For me personally it was a formative and life -changing experience. The time of worship in the morning opened a curtain into a different kind of prayer life for me. Through music and joyful praise, my African friends showed me how to be close to God and Nature. I learnt to look at the clouds and to notice the stars and the shape of the moon. To smell the rain even before it hit the ground. I learnt to hug little children and weeping women close to me. I allowed myself to be held and hugged too and learnt the blessings of touch. An African hug is an almost sacred experience, a feeling of complete acceptance and the assurance that for a moment you just belong, that you are the beloved of the person who is hugging you. There are many other blessings in encountering women from another culture. One learns to accept kindness and care in different ways. A gentle neck massage from warm tender hands at the end of a busy day . A hot cup of coffee specially prepared for you when everyone else is drinking tea. An invitation to someone’s home. Lots of warm hugs.
Listening to their stories, I realized that the most personal is also the most universal. During the course of my stay I witnessed two sides to Africa…….. I saw the sickness, poverty, hunger , death and the darkness that Africa is famous for. I listened to stories of war and famine and horror…..of children being dragged off to the war front, of children whose limbs were torn by land mines and country bombs, of children who joined gangs, who stole and murdered and wreaked havoc on small communities because that was the only way they could survive . I also saw and experienced the “ other Africa” the place where humanity first evolved from. The place where the ‘humanness’ of Man is more visible than anywhere else. Where it is possible to see the face of God in a human being. For a short while I lived with a people who were always ready to smile and hug, had a song in their heart, rhythm in their bones and dance in their step. Compassionate people whose eyes would fill with tears at hearing a sad story. People who took care of strangers with warmth and generosity. I met ordinary people, poor people who lived in small mud huts or in little tin rooms who looked after the young and the old, who took care of the sick and the dying even though they did not belong to them, and even though they had very little themselves.
When the rest of the world is getting so crowded, hostile and ugly, Africa is also the place where one can experience the sense of space and beauty in Nature………for Africa is a vast continent…..endless empty plains stretch as far as the eye can see on the horizon, above you huge white clouds float effortlessly by. The night sky is more brilliantly lit with tiny stars that seem so near that you could almost reach out and touch them. Even the trees are taller and more noble looking. There is nothing soft or mellow about Africa. The colours of the soil and in the fields are strong green, dark browns and harsh glaring reds. The flowers and creepers on the sides of the road are bright yellow, orange, pink and flaming red. Brilliant butterflies and insects fly around, buzzing and humming, creating music of their own. The rain beating down relentlessly also has a rhythm of it’s own. To a people in pain and despair, these are signs of God’s presence.
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