“When you go home to Ireland tell your people about the problems that we have with HIV and AIDS – we need help to deal with this.” These words were addressed to me by a parishioner of the church where I spent my summer placement in Swaziland.
As part of my training for ordination I had the opportunity to travel overseas in order to gain experience and awareness of the world-wide church. I travelled to Swaziland in southern Africa under the Expanding Horizons programme run by the Anglican mission agency U.S.P.G.
Before I left I had learned a little about Swaziland and the Anglican Church there. I knew that the country had the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the world, but having spent a month there I now have a greater appreciation of the problems faced by the church and their efforts to respond to the situation.
I spent the first week with Andrew and Rosemary Symonds, mission companions with U.S.P.G. and had the opportunity to visit several parishes, meet clergy and see something of the church’s work. At one remote rural church we were greeted by a group of about twenty small children who gathered around Andrew’s car in curiosity. These children, I learned, had come to be fed at the church where two women cook a large pot of mealy (maize) porridge and beans. The children are either orphans or whose families are too poor to feed them and they come several times a week for food. The parish also runs a training course for carers of HIV sufferers.
In a nearby homestead we visited an elderly lady who was caring for two young grandchildren on her own. She had a supply of maize that she grew on her small holding, because her neighbours had ploughed and sown the crop for her. The two grandchildren had attended school but now she was unable to pay the fees and they had to leave. Although teachers’ salaries are paid by the government, schools depend on fees to cover the other running costs and even modest fees are beyond the reach of many poor people.
It was humbling to meet people with so little; and yet they have a remarkable faith. This same lady showed us her newly born chickens. She informed us that God had rewarded her with many chickens because she had donated one to the church!
At a girls’ secondary school the chaplain described how HIV/AIDS impacted on the lives of the girls. Many of the girls have lost one or both parents to the virus and they are very vulnerable and some have been abused. She told us of one girl that had lost both parents and then was raped by a pastor to whom she had gone for counselling. Her aunt did not want the girl to report this to the police in order to protect the pastor. Seemingly such stories are not uncommon.
After my introductory week, I spent three weeks at Usuthu Mission church, staying in a house attached to a small community of Anglican nuns who provided my meals. While I was there the nuns accompanied lay ministers on outreach visits to remote homesteads where they found several people that were very ill and with nothing to feed themselves or their families. Through the outreach work of the church, numbers are growing as people come to faith including some elderly people who had never attended church before.
At my first service in a remote rural congregation food was provided after church. The rector informed me afterwards that several of these people would not have eaten for two or three days. The parish would like to offer meals on a regular basis, but does not have the resources.
While at Usuthu Mission I was involved in preaching and leading worship, conducting school assemblies and pastoral visiting to the elderly. This involved collecting elderly people from their homes and bringing them to the home of somebody who is ill or housebound to celebrate the Eucharist. The African worship was vibrant with wonderful singing and rhythm. This was evident in the parish church, at the schools and even among the elderly. In one home service a group of elderly ladies danced around the room on their walking sticks!
While the people of Swaziland are full of joy and have a deep faith many lives have been devastated by HIV/AIDS. Invariably we found elderly women caring for very young children that have lost their parents. The parish does what it can, feeding some and paying school fees for orphans.
The diocese of Swaziland has plans to launch a sustainable development project that will fund its social outreach and provide employment, but this cannot happen without substantial funding. U.S.P.G. Ireland is currently looking at ways to fund this project which is so badly needed.