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Togo: Dying for want of money

AJAN Director Paterne Mombe SJ

A poor man knocked on your door, you are sleeping, you are sleeping;

A poor man sang at your door, you are sleeping, you are sleeping.

Why are you letting him go? Why are you letting him die?

It’s not warm at night, it’s not warm on the cross.

As a young scholastic, I was very moved by this song of Jean Servel performed by John Littleton.

Why let Bernard leave, why let him die? This is the question I ask myself when I think about his death. The news tore a loud cry of desolation and deep regret from me. How could it have happened?

Bernard was a forty-something widower who lived in Lomé, Togo. His wife died of AIDS more than five years ago, leaving him with their four children. He loved them dearly and worried a lot about their future. Although Bernard had HIV, his health was quite good and he struggled to to earn a living, to fulfill his parental and medical responsibilities. Initially, he got a loan from the Centre Espérance Loyola (CEL – Loyola Hope Centre) and bought a second-hand motorbike to use as a taxi, like many other unemployed people. This allowed him to repay his debt and to get by… but not for long, because the bad state of the bike soon put an end to this initiative.

But Bernard did not give up. With three other people living with HIV (all women), he set up an association to make the most of a skill they had learned in a training course organised by the CEL and by Sr Justine Agbo: making soap, liquid and in bars, for washing laundry or dishes, and even for skin problems. Thanks to help from the Austrian Jesuit mission office, they could start their business and had a modest but stable income.

Then, six months ago, Bernard started to develop heart complications that meant he had to be placed on daily treatment. His meagre savings were soon spent. Since his biological family had abandoned him to his sad fate, the fellow members of his association did not hesitate to come to his aid, gradually using the bit of money they had saved. Bernard recovered, until one ill-fated Sunday in January at 4am… he turned to Madeline, the chairperson of the association. She first took him to the home of his doctor, who had to direct them to the University Hospital Centre, given the seriousness of the problem.

But they needed money. Madeline took all that was left in the till of the association and appealed to Bernard’s family. He had four sisters. Only one niece rushed to his bedside. But it wasn’t enough to foot the bill for the medical prescription. The day flew by and no financial help could be found, Madeline told me as the tears flowed down her cheeks. And the CEL? The centre has had to revise the social support it gives because it has been heavily weighed down by the burden of the financial crisis affecting AIDS-related activities, in a setting where key socio-economic factors remain practically the same.

At 10pm, Bernard asked Madeline to go home, but first to pass by his place to make sure his four children had eaten that day. As soon as she arrived home, she got a call… Bernard had gone to the home of his Father.

A poor man knocked on your door, you are sleeping, you are sleeping;

A poor man sang at your door, you are sleeping, you are sleeping.

Why are you letting him go? Why are you letting him die?

It’s not warm at night, it’s not warm on the cross.

Bernard, my brother, I can’t stop my tears from falling, but my prayers go with you. For me, you will always be a model of courage, creativity, patience, perseverance and determination in the struggle for you and others to have “life to the full”. We’ll do all we can to take care of your children. Go and rest… in peace.

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