I spoke at our service commemorating World AIDS Day today in Marquand Chapel at Yale Divinity School.
Here’s what I said:
My friend Pakama lives in a place called Itipini, a shantytown community built on the landfill of small city in South Africa, the country with more HIV-positive people than any other in the world. I worked in a clinic in Itipini and when Pakama first came there three years ago, she was weak, gaunt, and emaciated. Her collar bones poked through her shirt. She had AIDS and tuberculosis.
I helped her navigate the complex health system, looking for the right combination of drugs to treat her diseases. I knew anti-retroviral therapy for AIDS was incredibly effective but I wasn’t sure Pakama was healthy enough to make it through the system in time. She lost the energy to walk and I had to lift her in and out of the car and carry her to appointments. She lay in bed in her shack the rest of the day. Each morning, as I drove to Itipini, I mentally prepared myself to hear the news that she had died the night before. In those weeks of traveling through the health care system with Pakama, her brother and aunt, both of whom were HIV-positive, died of the disease. I didn’t have much hope Pakama would be different.
It took a long time and a lot of work but she got started on ARVs. There was no sudden shift, however. She was still weak and thin – but alive. There were other patients to look after and I saw less of Pakama. Then, I was away for a few weeks. When I returned, the first thing I did was seek her out.
I found her in front of her shack washing clothes. She smiled broadly to see me again and asked how I was.
“I’m fine,” I said. “But I want to know how you are. Can you walk?”
“Yes,” she replied. She was supporting herself just fine while washing the clothes but I needed to see for myself.
“Show me,” I said.
She gave me a look that said, “What does he think? Of course I can walk by myself.” But she humoured me. Without struggle or undue effort, she casually walked down one side of the shack and back to the door and then turned to look to see if I was satisfied. I was. She was like a whole new person.
When I worked in South Africa, friends at home often asked me if there was hope in the face of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. On that glorious day when I saw Pakama stroll back and forth in front of her shack, I knew the answer is definitively yes. I saw Pakama again this past summer when I went to visit Itipini. Her weight has nearly doubled and she has a small fruit stand in town that enables her to pay school fees for her children.
But as I read the news last week about the craven decision by the international community to effectively kill the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis, I wonder about Pakama’s supply and whether next year on this day I’ll still be able to point to her as a story of hope.
It’s worth noting that the clinic I worked at in South Africa was church-related and church-funded. Across Africa, churches are on the front lines of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The funding cuts to the Global Fund seem to be an excellent opportunity for the church – in Africa, in the United States, in Europe, working together – to seize its prophetic role and work to overturn the decision.
What you should really read, though, is former UN Envoy Stephen Lewis’ statement on the gutting of the Global Fund, which I heard him deliver on Monday of this week in New Haven. I’d post an excerpt except the whole thing is incredible.