Sunday, June 8, 2008

Partners & Companions - South Africa

Southern Africa remains the region worst-affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. A combination of factors seem to be responsible for this including poverty and social instability, the low status of women, sexual violence, high mobility (particularly migrant and transnational labor), as well as high numbers of sexual partners and other promiscuous tendencies. Amongst the countries in Southern Africa as a region, South Africa is regarded as having the most severe HIV epidemic in the world. The province we currently reside in of Kwa-Zulu Natal has been shown to have the highest infection rate in the country with nearly 40% infection. There is an HIV barometer in the national Mail & Guardian newspaper ( every Friday, where on June 2nd the report was just under 2.5 million AIDS related deaths to date. Efforts to stem the tide of new infections have only had limited success, as behavior change and social change are long-term processes, and the factors that predispose people to infection – such as poverty, illiteracy, and gender inequalities – cannot be addressed in the short term. Vulnerability to, and the impact, of the HIV/AIDS epidemic is proving to be most catastrophic at the community and household level. There is a limit to how many times a person can queue all day at a clinic with a sick relative, how many loved ones a family can bury, how well a grandmother can care for another orphaned grandchild, and how many funerals family, friends and neighbors can attend or help pay for. Although 71% of the AIDS related deaths are between the ages of 15-49 (aiding in the loss of a generation), there are hundreds of thousands of children also battling this disease. It can become crippling to think of how we can help, and leads me to the question in regards to international aid programs…how are we truly being partners and companions in the world?

As we look at what it means to be a partner or a companion across international borders, I think we need to ask ourselves if we as individuals, or if the many organizations or projects that you may have come across or been apart of have been mutual and equal companions? We seem very willing to help and give and teach and go, but are we willing to be taught, to listen and to receive as well? I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t want to be active participants as partners and companions, but is the balance equal or is one side of the balance askew at a high level while the other remains at the bottom? For me, this suggests that those whom the balance favors will remain in control and with power as if a cat holding a mouse by the tail. When one looks at government aid programs on the large scale as well as, for example, the companion relationship we currently work within through the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and in South Africa (ELCSA), the goal would be to have equitable and mutual relationships where the balance of teaching and learning, giving and receiving, listening and doing are equal on both sides.

Is there any perfect answer to this issue both for government aid organizations as well as church companionship relationships? No, but my hope is that we can build mutuality directed towards community (or local church community) driven responses and initiatives. There is a pressing need to scale up community driven responses, initiatives and relationships so as to ask “what do you think….”, instead of “this is what I/we think should be done about or what you need to do about….” . By doing this it does make us more vulnerable and requires a relinquishing of control, but I feel this is a good step towards equitable and mutual relationships amongst church, government, social and other international organizations and projects. For with this, sustainability comes into mind. I have heard and seen examples internationally where an individual or group comes in with all the “ideas” and knows exactly what is “needed”, but then over time what is left when sides part ways are a vacant community center, boxed up old computers, books left untouched, or hundreds of old brochures and fliers in the corner.. Looking outside ourselves and assisting those less fortunate is a beautiful gift, but the question remains how the idea generation format took place and who was allowed to attend and participate in the decision making?

As I sat in the township church in Imbali today, I was humbled by the woman, Sister Happiness, who came and sat down by me during the sermon to translate what the pastor was saying in Zulu. I told her it was ok, I don’t want to disturb the others and she could just summarize for me later. But she said no, I want to do this for you so you can know what he is saying. So against what would have been in my comfort zone of just quietly listening to the Zulu words floating above, I accepted her generosity and simply sat and listened for the next 30 minutes or so as she translated what the pastor said. For it was I who needed to receive and it was she who wanted to give, even if in the smallest of ways. As I sat and took in the beautiful singing, dancing and harmonies the rest of the morning, I felt so blessed to have the opportunity to receive so much from one of our companion churches across the ocean at this lively Imbali township Lutheran Church.

With Peace and Love,