I recently traveled to a hospital in a famous ‘section’ of Johannesburg called Soweto. I have heard it is the largest hospital in the world, although I haven’t confirmed that claim, and I have also heard they are renowned experts and leaders in the field of treating burn victims. To me, the most interesting thing about their story wasn’t that they are said to be the largest hospital in the world, or even that they are acknowledged experts in a specialized field. The point I found most compelling was the explanation for why they are leaders in treating burns.
During the years when blacks were not allowed to live in Johannesburg, Soweto began as a ‘squatter’s camp’ for black workers outside the city. The politically correct term now is ‘informal settlement’ – but the conditions are the same; no running water, no sewage system, and no electricity. The fact that there is no electricity means that in order to keep warm in the freezing winter months, boil water so it is safe to drink, or cook daily meals, people must make fires. Unfortunately, open fires often lead to peoples’ small shacks igniting – and once one catches fire, an entire section of the settlement can burn before it can be put out. Also, boiling pots of water are commonly tipped over by small children who end up with significant portions of their bodies severely burned. The other factor leading to burns in informal settlements is violence. Many people are victims of another’s rage and fire is a weapon.
It is for all of these reasons the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto found itself serving high numbers of burn victims. As it was explained to me, it was purely out of necessity that they became experts in treating burn victims; because in order to save lives and respond to the needs of the community, they had to. And as the hospital grew into this reality, they learned new techniques on how to care for burns; they sought advice from others who were knowledgeable, and they began education and prevention campaigns to try to lower the number of adults and children burned every year. They still see too many victims coming in, but they are far better equipped to care for those victims and they continue to prevent even more people from suffering the same fate.
As I think about the hospital’s response growing out of a very real need, I am acutely aware of the alarming situation facing southern African churches with regard to HIV and AIDS. Despite local and international work to fight this disease, understanding of HIV and AIDS is very low among the general population and infection rates are still increasing. Most people agree one major reason for the misunderstandings and lack of accurate information regarding this disease is that those with AIDS suffer such enormous discrimination they don’t discuss their disease with others, and in many areas it is still culturally taboo to discuss sex at all. Some key reasons infection rates are still increasing are that women do not have the power to determine the circumstances of their sexual encounters, patriarchal norms lead to high rates of infidelity among men, and children are often forced into prostitution to make enough money to eat. Poverty, sexual and physical violence, lack of basic resources, overburdened health care and educational systems, and corrupt and ignorant governments, all combine to create an environment where HIV and AIDS are able to flourish. As a direct result of these problems the churches are faced with how to combat irresponsible and violent sexual practices, oppression of people living with this disease, and a loss of lives, which is unimaginable.
Thinking back to my visit to the hospital in Soweto, it seems to me we are on the verge of churches in southern Africa becoming experts in HIV and AIDS education, prevention, support, and pastoral care. I believe it will be out of pure necessity that they become ‘specialists in this field because in order to save lives and respond to the needs of the community, they will have to. The church – the body of Christ - is the people, and the people are dying of AIDS. As the church grows into this reality, I hope it, too, will learn new techniques for how to care for those dealing with HIV and AIDS, that it will seek advice from others who are knowledgeable regarding the disease, and it will begin its own education and prevention campaigns to lower the number of adults and children infected every year. Like the hospital, I pray with God’s help the church will become far better equipped to care for the infected and affected, and will be able to prevent even more people from suffering the same fate.
Shanya Luther Shanya Luther serves as a Global Mission Intern with the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (UCCCSA) based in Johannesburg, South Africa. This is a joint appointment by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ. She serves as an AIDS consultant.