The young woman approached Suzanne tentatively. “I want to ask you something,” she said shyly. “I have no family, will you be my aunt please?” Suzanne had first seen Chantal* the day before, when she met a group of widows. Chantal’s life was destroyed during the genocide against Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994: she was widowed, raped and infected with HIV. Suzanne readily accepted to become her “aunt” and the two became friends, visiting one another regularly. Chantal and her children spent Christmas with Suzanne and hers. “Voici ma tante (here is my aunt), here are my nieces,” Chantal says proudly. She is no longer alone.
Suzanne met Chantal in her efforts to reach out to people living with HIV. This is the chosen mission of the Christian Life Community (CLC) in Rwanda, of which she is a member. The CLC is an international network of prayer groups that draws inspiration from the life and spirituality of the founder of the Jesuit order, Ignatius of Loyola. When the Rwandan CLC was searching for a common mission back in 2005, there was no shortage of urgent needs to choose from. A decade after the genocide, there were countless orphans, widows infected by HIV, overcrowded prisons, the crying need for reconciliation… in the end, they chose people living with HIV.
“We are not doctors but we saw the spiritual needs of the people and felt we could help them in other ways. We discovered that, after receiving some basic training, we could help people to recover their self-confidence, to accept their condition and to understand that AIDS is not the end of life,” says Alphonse, another veteran member of CLC.
The government offers solid medical treatment for HIV but the CLC acutely discerned that, although essential, this is not enough. “Hidden needs” cry out to be met. AIDS was – and, to an extent, still is – a condition shrouded in despair, denial and stigma. In line with what they felt they could give, the CLC chose a very specific mission: to seek out people living with HIV and to engage in “spiritual conversation” with them.
In simple terms, they translate this Ignatian concept into creating links of friendship, listening for as long as it takes, and helping as they can. The ultimate aim: reawakening the “goûtde vivre”, the zest for living in people who have given up on life. And eventually they pray together with their new friends – whatever their faith background.
Ten years on, the mission is going strong. There are 46 ‘accompagnateurs’ (companions, “people who accompany”), drawn from the different communities, who have befriended 107 people with HIV. Their work is humble but deeply effective. They now also help their friends to run modest income-generating activities (IGAs) because they have realised that people cannot live on prayer alone. “We saw right away that we could not just be friends, there were so many material needs like hunger and housing, so we started to try to help them,” said Alphonse. But, he is quick to add, the spiritual remains the key aspect of the mission.
In 2014, the CLC opened a small centre in the grounds of a Jesuit complex in Kigali to serve as a base for its mission. Emmanuel Muhire, a nurse and counsellor, runs the Ireme Centre and coordinates support for IGAs, sponsorship for the education of some orphans, aid for the most destitute and meetings for accompagnateurs. Crucially, Emmanuel also does more in-depth counselling with those who are still in denial, oppressed by depression and stigma.
The approach of the CLC is deliberate and planned. But the friendship struck with people with HIV is entirely spontaneous and natural. It is not something that those belonging to CLC have to do; it is something they want to do. And what amazes themmost is how the people they befriend blossom when they receive attention and love.
“They need affection,” says Suzanne. “When they come to my house, when they come to the centre and Emmanuel welcomes them, they feel they have value, that they matter. They say: ‘Do you know Emmanuel accompanied me to the gate? Do you know he called me?’”
Claudine echoes her words. She is gaunt and grave, telling her story in a monotone, how she thought only about killing herself when she learned she was HIV-positive, how she shut everyone out and refused to take her medication. But she comes to life when she talks about Emmanuel: “He counselled me very well and prayed for me. He calls me every day to ask me how I am.” Visibly moved, she continues: “Now I am living because of him.”
It is undeniably tough to reach people who have suffered so much. At first, when they saw the sickness, depression and poverty crushing some people they visited, the members of CLC seriously questioned how they were going to manage, if what they were doing was worthwhile. They would return to their community and ask for something to alleviate the suffering they had seen.
They learned fast. Yvonne, the head of CLC in Rwanda, remembers one of the first experiences: “Two people of CLC visited a woman so sick, she could not even get up. The room she lived in was a mess. The volunteers realised there was no point in praying in such a situation and did the only thing that made sense: they tended to the woman, brought her food, cleaned her place. And they went regularly, again and again, until the woman began to recover, and was able to go out. Her neighbours were completely amazed because they had given her up for dead.”
Betty is strong today but remembers how ill she was: “I was about to die. My friends and family abandoned me and my two children had nothing to eat. They had to beg for food in the neighbourhood but no one gave them. They said ‘your mother’s sickness will take us too’. I lived that life for three years. Then the CLC started to take care of me. At first, when they saw me, they cried. They helped me, gave me food and kept me very close.”
Many people living with HIV soak up the attention they receive because they have been so deprived of acceptance and love. They hide away because they are afraid of being rejected and, unfortunately, their fears can be well founded. Ntigurirwa recalls: “I went to do an HIV test. There was a neighbour too and she discovered my result was positive. She told my other neighbours and they pushed me and my children away. We ended up without a home.”
In Rwanda, some HIV-positive women and youth carry a painful secret that is very hard to bear and share. Suzanne remembers one case that speaks for many: “Only one out of so-many siblings was born with HIV, and she would ask her mother, ‘why only me? Why must only I take medication?’ Her mother found it hard to explain why only the two of them were sick, mother and daughter, and she came to ask me, ‘what shall I say?’ The mother had been raped and infected in the genocide and she gave birth to this girl. When the child grew older, she explained this to her. How do you tell your child her father was a genocidaire? It is a double wound for both mother and the child and they really need to be accompanied.”
A mark of the involvement of the CLC, and doubtless a secret of their success, is that the accompagnateurs share what they are doing with the rest of their community. They are not lone rangers and this is important for more reasons than one. Louise, who has been doing this mission for several years, says: “There are difficult moments when the people we accompany feel discouraged, when they don’t want to take medication, when they don’t want to talk. This discourages you too, and it is important to share with others.”
This is in line with what CLC calls DSSE: Discern, Send, Support and Evaluate. They are sent on a mission by the community that support them. Alphonse explains: “When you discover someone in need, your community helps in discerning and then sends and supports you. Later, you make a common evaluation.” Every member of CLC is involved in the mission, by sharing, praying, giving donations, fundraising, giving food and in many other ways. Sometimes the community intervenes to pay health bills or school fees.
Alphonse gives a touching example: “A member of our community discovered a child who had AIDS and who appeared to be almost alone, without family – a consequence of the genocide. The child was desperate. We looked after him, helped him get medical care and tried hard to discover if he had any family left. Finally we found he has relatives who are still alive, far from Kigali. We accompanied the child to meet them and they accepted him, there was a big reunification, and he was so happy. The family have become our friends and we are still in touch with them.”
The experience of CLC has taught its members that those they befriend go through a process. “When they are sick and desperate, you meet them just to help them to get by,” says Louise. “We have to be very close to them at this time, attentive, careful and regular, so they can recover. And when they do recover, they are happy to communicate, they feel as if they are climbing out of a deep hole. At this stage, we see together what to do.”
This is the time when the CLC tries to help the person to earn a living. Some of those accompanied by CLC have come together to do IGAs as a group: so far, they sell soap, which they make, charcoal and second-hand clothes, and prepare hospital meals. The people do not only work together, they come together to pray and to share what they are going through. The love and practical help they receive from the CLC and from one another prompts them to shed the debilitating fear of stigma.
Although there are many challenges, chief among them a lack of funds to meet pressing material needs and to start new IGAs, the members of the CLC are looking ahead with hope. They keep their eyes firmly focused on the new lease of life they are giving to their friends and on the radical transformation they have witnessed when people “start to live again, rooted in hope”.
To read this article in French, please go here.