We are not the ‘son of the owner’; the Community is!
In July 2000, I was sent for pastoral fieldwork to Kasisi-Zambia, a few kilometers outside Lusaka. My task was to support the community-based care program, which was being launched as a local and communitarian response to HIV and AIDS. It was at the height of the pandemic, and Africa’s 37% prevalence rate seemed to underrepresent the reality.
One grim morning, a blaring motorcycle drove me and a guide through a small sandy path to a village where a series of HIV and AIDS-related deaths had hit. As we reached the homestead of the deceased, we could still perceive the dying embers of the previous night’s wake keeping fire. A woman of a certain age was still basking in its heat, but that did little to hide her pain and enormous anguish. My gaze, however, quickly settled on a child who must have been four or five years old. This death had orphaned him for a second time because he had just lost his second parent and was now forced to live with his ageing grandmother. His stare was glassy and bare, and it was all too visible that he had been crying for a long time. There is nothing more devastating than a child’s cry, whatever the cause. After asking his name, I gave him a packet of biscuits I had in my pocket. A desperate gesture that expressed all my distress: a small packet of biscuits! And then what? This was the manifestation of my profound helplessness. What chance did he have of surviving?
I don’t know what he has become today, but that memory does not leave me. It reminds me, on one hand, of the urgency to respond to the still-raging HIV and AIDS pandemic in this part of the world. On the other hand, we must know that if the boy survived, the community must have played a crucial role. The memory of this child allows me to make this statement on World AIDS Day 2023: the emergency is still unmitigated, and the community should be given more responsibility.
The urgency has not diminished!
It is true that over the past 21 years, the world has witnessed significant progress in the fight against HIV and AIDS, thanks to advancements in medical research, increased access to testing, treatment, awareness programs, prevention interventions and scale-up of stigma reduction strategies. But, as ICASA’s (International Conference of AIDS and STIs in Africa) alarming theme underscores, AIDS is not over! Indeed,more than 40 years down the line, HIV and AIDS are still causing immeasurable turmoil to over 39 million people. They face health, social, psychosocial, economic, and spiritual challenges. More alarming is that there are new infections, despite these enormous efforts, with 1.3 million newly infected with HIV globally in 2022. The UNAIDS report 2023 shows that 4,000 teenagers between the ages of 14 and 24 are infected each week, with 3,100 of those cases occurring in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Let the communities lead!”
The theme of this year’s World AIDS Day is “Let the communities lead!” This assertion rightly recognizes the agency of the affected people and their communities while admitting the futility of action that excludes the active participation of every member of society. Along with the message of ICASA, it emphasizes the importance of thinking and acting together. It is a pronouncement that no such problem belongs to one person.
An African proverb says that a falling tree will crush innocent babies, but when the webs of a spider join together, they can trap a lion. A calamity may touch a few, but its solution involves all. It cannot be left solely to an individual or a few; it must be a shared responsibility. The efforts of all stakeholders, including young people, engaged in transparent, accountable, and sustainable innovations will bring a swift resolution to the challenge. Therefore, effective solutions must put the affected community and those infected by HIV and AIDS at the center. Similarly, efforts must go beyond health and medicine to touch all dimensions of well-being. “Let the communities lead” is a call to engagement for all, a call to collaboration in the mission of the Lord.
The African Jesuit AIDS Network (AJAN), founded in 2002, is the structure of the Jesuit Conference of Africa and Madagascar (JCAM), leading the response to HIV and AIDS. It is a community-based structure operating in 19 Jesuit Centers in 17 countries in Africa and Madagascar. In its mission, AJAN prioritises two types of action. The first is direct intervention to support people and families affected by HIV and AIDS. The second and preferred action is value-based education, targeting young people between 15 and 24 years. This approach accompanies young people by helping them build capacity and develop responsible behaviours and sustainable actions to reach zero infection.
AJAN’s community engagement experience at the grassroots conforms with the call to collaboration by Fr. Arturo Sosa, the Superior General of the Society of Jesus. In his book Walking with Ignatius, on page 249, he warns against the pride of believing that we have the answers and acting like we know it all. We certainly do not see the direction, do not have the resources, and do not have the status. This kind of pride puts the community at a disadvantage, and the false impression of calling the shots destroys the chances of eradicating this catastrophe. Our experience has taught us that communities have their best interest at heart more than anyone else, and therefore, their role in the greater scheme of things cannot be overlooked.
The Church has been modelling the path of a community-centered approach through the Synodality process. Here, the voices of the local church, even from the periphery, become the foundations of a consultative process. This builds a Church where everyone is heard and feels part of the whole because a piece of everyone from the bottom to the pinnacle makes the brick that creates the entire body. In his Encyclical Letter Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis states that “we cannot be indifferent to suffering” (68), as demonstrated by the story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37). Here, Jesus urges us to “go and do likewise.” The parable demonstrates how a community can be rebuilt by men and women who recognise not only their vulnerability but the capacities of others. By accommodating all, we oppose the establishment of an exclusive society where only leadership is involved. We cannot plan healthcare for the sick in a way that fosters resilience and fraternity unless we have the support, bravery, and inventiveness of others, including family members, community volunteers, and healthcare professionals.
On behalf of all the Jesuits in Africa, I express my gratitude to our partners and those with whom we are collaborators in the mission of Our Lord. With your continued support, we share the same history of transforming lives without leaving anyone behind, the testimony of creating a generation of well-rounded young people committed to a hope-filled future.
Rev. Fr. Minaku L. José, SJ
President of JCAM