I hate to sound like a social dilettante crashing the AIDS activist party, but the situation here is downright terrifying. I am telling you, the country is literally being decimated. A funeral worker commented that you watch the graveyard swell on a weekly basis, as the graves push closer to the outlying streets. They have multiple funerals because so many die in a week. Friday is known as "Stiff's Day," because they collect the bodies from the week for the militiaperson funerals held on Saturday. For some reason, I had a macabre reminder of the multiple bar mitzvahs held at synagogues with too many children.
The graveyards stay fresh, as the funeral parlor owners get fat from the money they take in, meanwhile the country just withers away. The funeral parlor owners are making a killing (no pun intended) because the culture here is that you must have a lavish funeral for the person. Since it would be a dishonor for the family not to have a lavish funeral, families who can't afford the dying decadence abandon their loved ones. The dying person is left to stay a state hospice, so that they can be given a proper burial in a pauper's graveyard.
At its highest levels, the behavior of the South African government is shocking. President Mbeki and his aides counsel people to take vitamins and eat vegetables as a way of warding off this disease. Meanwhile, the health system can hardly cope. Private organizations, NGOS and church organizations are helping, and doing a more adept job of treatment and prevention, but they are band-aids on punctured arteries. I was in Kingdom of Lesotho today, visiting a Baylor Health clinic. It is a brand-new facility, which receives assistance from the international and NGO community. It also receives some help from the Lesotho government, but the private sector does a much more thorough job of treating patients.
I went to a hospice in a city called Ladybrand. The hospice takes in children whose parents died of AIDS, and also likely have AIDS. They will take the kids to the clinic to be tested, but won't ask the results on account of privacy. Most of the kids there have it. At the hospice, they work on beadery that is sold to support them. The clinic keeps half their funds in bank accounts, and gives them spending money as well. They also receive up to three square meals. I went to another clinic in Lesotho, in a city called Maputsoe. I really lost it there. I was in the maternity ward, just looking at the mothers and babies who have aids. I was sitting outside the room, just listening to babies cry and wondering how long the mothers will be there to comfort them.
There is a dire need for behavioral change, and god knows what else. Lesotho is a primarily Christian country. 80% is Christian, and of that 90% are Catholic. The Catholic church there is working in the fight against AIDS, but of course, is silent on the issue of condoms. They counsel abstinence and being faithful to your partner. They are not working against the supply of condoms, but they sure are not advocating their usage. Imagine the effect if the Catholic church changed its stance on safe sex. It would be a force to stem the tide against the AIDS battle. I'm not holding my breath for that, but I can say this much. If the Catholic church is looking for Jesus, I'm pretty sure they would find him in an AIDS clinic in Lesotho. Healing the sick and feeding the poor. Not at some 30,000-seat megachurch, he would be in Southern Africa.