In summer, Jacques Ngimbous SJ left Hekima College of Theology in Nairobi to do pastoral fieldwork at the Service Yezu Mwiza (SYM) in Bujumbura. SYM is a project of the Jesuit Region of Rwanda-Burundi that is dedicated to the care and support of people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS and to preventing the further spread of the pandemic. Meeting men and women served by SYM, Jacques let go of some mistaken impressions. He writes:
30 September 2013 – I used to join the SYM teams when they went to health centres and parishes in Bujumbura and its environs. My ignorance of Kirundi enabled me to watch and listen a lot. Each time I addressed the people served by SYM, I needed the help of one of the staff to translate what I was saying. My first encounter with the beneficiaries – who rank among the poorest of the poor – left a positive impact. I was expecting to meet people who were sad and distraught; instead I got to know joyful and radiant men and women. I was imagining sickly people but found people who were healthy. My daily trips to the field gradually led to familiarity between us. They called me mushiti, the stranger or the one who has just arrived. I stopped looking at them as people infected by HIV. They became human beings once again – full stop. In fact, it is my perspective about AIDS that changed. I realised AIDS is an infection like any other.
The beneficiaries of SYM have been so well cared for that they have learned to live positively with their infection. They have learned how to smile at life rather than to lament it. They talk about what may be called their “deprived life” with the greatest ease and, what’s more, with plenty of humour. Perhaps for them, it’s the best way of playing down the “drama” of being HIV-positive. Their joy veers close to provocation: a provocation for bitter and plaintive people, for those who refuse to accept the “involuntary” irreversible things that happen in life.
The image the beneficiaries have of Jesus is of the Good Shepherd or a loving father who takes great care of each of His children. When they receive medicine, financial or psychosocial support, they know in their hearts it is Christ Himself who is helping them. They have the experience of a God who does not abandon them in their suffering. Rather, He accompanies them along the journey of life, however difficult it may be.