By Giordano Contu
Africa is the largest AIDS basin in the world. In 2019, 59 percent of new HIV infections globally were registered on the continent. In the south-eastern quadrant of Africa and the sub-Saharan area, where the risk is greater due to reduced access to treatment, the infection rate is five out of six for young people of between 15 and 19. This was revealed by the UNAIDS factsheet this year. On World AIDS Day, which is celebrated yearly on December 1st, this data reminds us how serious the epidemic is.
“The situation in Africa is still distressing, although important progress has been made in the medical and scientific fields in terms of testing and treatment.” Fr. Ismael Matambura, director of the African Jesuit AIDS Network (AJAN), tells L’Osservatore Romano. AJAN was founded in 2002 by the Jesuit Conference of Africa and Madagascar based on the idea of Cardinal Michael Czerny who was Undersecretary of the Section Migrants and Refugees -the Dicastery for the service of Integral Human Development- at the time.
AJAN is a Jesuit network made up of 27 centers that have volunteers and peer educators who receive specific training. Among the operators are also doctors, lawyers, teachers, psychiatrists, consultants, priests, nuns, and social workers. It makes use of the collaboration of medical laboratories, educational institutions, and parishes, and is present in 17 states while based in Nairobi, Kenya. “We can estimate that the people who directly or indirectly benefit from our services are about 5-10 million,” says Father Ismael.
The Jesuit mission rests on two pillars. The first is the prevention of the disease among adolescents. As is well known, in fact, the main causes of transmission of the virus are many: poverty, early sexual relations, youth prostitution, relationships between people of the same sex, and the use of drugs. “We are convinced that HIV cannot be fought without educating and involving young people,” says Matambura. For this reason, in 2013, AJAN developed the AHAPPY- AJAN HIV AIDS Prevention Program for the Youth, whose goal is to not only educate boys and girls but to fully develop the human being. In practice, this happens by training operators, children and creating youth clubs in schools and parishes within which dialogue and experiences are shared, even with the aid of short videos, testimonials, and a smartphone app. “Students are at the center prepared to know, to face the challenges of their time and to acquire a critical mind”, continues the Jesuit.
The second pillar of the program is made up of those who contracted the virus and AIDS patients. “It is a challenge to be able to convince people to get tested for HIV, especially men,” says the cleric. Mainly due to fears and underestimations. HIV-positive people, on the other hand, often reach the centers after having tried numerous treatments without success. The latter is about five thousand every year. Once they arrive in a social center, they receive medical, spiritual, and psychosocial support, then they are directed to the appropriate structures depending on the nature of the issue and their health conditions. “Even more important is their involvement in prevention and awareness creation activities through radio and television programs,” explains the director of AJAN.
“They share their experiences to raise awareness and to educate people to change risky behaviors.” Furthermore, the operators make them responsible to ensure their economic autonomy. A path that, for example, is initially supported with scholarships for young people. “This helps them gain self-confidence and have a purpose in life,” adds Father Ismael. “In this sense, the gospel and faith have a motivating role”, he adds. “They inspire all our actions and practices aimed at enhancing the human person and restoring dignity in any situation. They are fundamental to our efforts to promote life, regardless of the suffering and condition of the person. In the face of suffering, Jesus never gives up. As it is also written in the Gospel of John: “The thief does not come except to steal, kill and destroy; I came that they may have life and have it in abundance “(John 10, 10). “This mission of Jesus that gives fullness to life is the same for Ajan,” says Matambura. Among the aims of the African Jesuit Aids Network is to encourage Jesuits to serve; promote policies and good practices at local, national, and international level; coordinate and financially support projects.
Today, living with AIDS in Africa is still difficult. “Through the stories of the patients followed in our centers we can clearly see the intrinsic link between HIV and poverty”, says the director. In the last twenty years, the quality of existence has improved slightly. It is now easier to access treatment and there are a greater number of public and private facilities. This extended life expectancy. In addition, some HIV-positive people do scientific research and run businesses and companies with which they compete in the free market. Those who are assisted by Jesuits usually live with parents, family members, or relatives. However, “the social stigma is still present,” says Father Ismael. “Some people who discover they have HIV have moved away from home or simply isolated. This makes them feel less human and stereotyped. In large cities, however, there is more information and less discrimination: many know that it will not be the virus that will kill them, but the way they live with it. The problem, unfortunately, is that most governments depend on external (non-government) funds to fight HIV,” Matambura reiterates. “Although thousands of children become orphans, AIDS is not a priority currently. Due to covid-19, the 2020 fundraising will be even smaller, but this matters relatively. Not even the pandemic has changed the situation that much”, concludes Father Ismael.
The Society of Jesuits extended its mission to respond to the new challenges posed by the coronavirus which made it difficult to find medicines and access facilities. Anguish and suffering were accentuated by the rise in prices and job difficulties. According to UNAIDS data, 38 million people around the world were affected by HIV last year. Compared to twenty years ago, the number of deaths and new infections has halved and the funds to fight AIDS are increasing year by year. However, money is an ambiguous indicator. The most affected states are also among the richest on the continent: in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Kenya where about 6.7 percent of the adult population lives with HIV with the presence of a dense transport network causing a higher rate of infections. What Africa needs is unconditional love, constant commitment, and a faithful promise.