Bearing witness, conveying relevance: Journalism students find engaging ways to share stories of HIV/AIDS in Swaziland

By Rachel Lapp
Photos by Zac Albrecht '06

Seated on a reed mat against the wall of a concrete hut, Anna Groff's notes were sparse as she and fellow Goshen College junior Kimberlee Rohrer interviewed Phumile, a young Swazi mother.
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Goshen College Board Policies
Current as of October 18, 2004

Category I: Ends Policies

1.0 Global Ends Statement:

Goshen College students integrate Christian faith, learning and service through an excellent Mennonite college education, at an institution practicing wise stewardship of resources.
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cover
 Peace & Justice Journalism
 HIV/AIDS in Swaziland

 June 2005



Bearing witness, conveying relevance: Journalism students find engaging ways to share stories of HIV/AIDS in Swaziland

By Rachel Lapp
Photos by Zac Albrecht '06

Seated on a reed mat against the wall of a concrete hut, Anna Groff's notes were sparse as she and fellow Goshen College junior Kimberlee Rohrer interviewed Phumile, a young Swazi mother. Like nearly 40 percent of the population of her country, she has contracted HIV; like the two students, she is in her early 20s.

orphan Phumile responded with short answers when asked, sometimes through MCC Country Representative Hlobisile Nxumalo, about her health and about weekly visits from a home healthcare volunteer who had been trained by MCC-supported Faith Bible School's HIV/AIDS church and community health project. The FBS home healthcare volunteers would like to visit more sick people, but the nutritional supplements and other supplies they bring to their patients are limited.

The group learned that Phumile is 22 years old and receives no support from the child's father; she lives with family on a small rural farm. Groff said that early on in the interview, Phumile's grandmother appeared in the doorway from the courtyard of the remote homestead, an infant secured below her stooped shoulders with a wide cloth. With painful difficulty, the elderly woman untied the bundle and placed her great-grandson next to Phumile; the small baby cried out, but his mother was too weak to pick him up, the students reported.

"She could hardly react to her son," said Rohrer. "She said the thing she misses most is not being able to wash his clothes."

Silent questions arose about the child's future: whether the three-month-old had been infected with HIV at birth, whether he might join the nearly 80,000 orphans in Swaziland. Rohrer and Groff thought about what they could do to share Phumile's story – with respect and dignity.

Groff said, "I found it very difficult to maintain my role as a reporter. I thought about how different our lives are, even though we are similar in age. I tried to imagine my grandmother caring for me and my infant, but I couldn't. Though the interview was short, as Phumile was tired, and I had to alter my questions and expectations of the interview, just being with her and seeing her homestead gave me a window into her life."

The students visited Swaziland to engage in a significant, hands-on journalism experience that would give them an opportunity to address current issues of global – and Christian church – relevance. The Plowshares Peace Studies grant program funded the travel. This is the second trip initiated for the Peace and Justice Journalism Project of the communication department.

group "The Peace and Justice Journalism Project is an effort to ground our journalism studies in some of the strengths of Goshen College, especially the Christ-centered core values that guide our students toward becoming global citizens and compassionate peacemakers," said Associate Professor of Communication Duane Stoltzfus, a faculty leader. "We want them to focus on the dispossessed and downtrodden in the world, telling stories about the have-nots in ways that raise awareness for their audience, and that can also be personally transforming. In many respects, it's a Goshen College version of the old journalistic mission to 'afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted'."

MCC HIV/AIDS Coordinator Sarah Adams accompanied the Goshen group for several days as part of a longer trip to visit AIDS-related projects in Africa.

"HIV/AIDS and other issues that both result from and exacerbate poverty and human suffering around the world rarely get the media attention they deserve. Because the issues affecting billions of people around the world are not always the same issues affecting us here in the U.S., it is important to find engaging and creative ways to make these issues feel more pertinent to a North American audience," Adams said. "Since we started the Generations at Risk HIV/AIDS campaign, we've been really impressed with the enthusiasm from college campuses. Young adults seem to have connected with the AIDS issue. We've been providing information and inputs to constituent campuses, so we were excited when the opportunity came up to explore the issue on a deeper level with the Goshen College community. Our hope is that the students and faculty that took part in the trip, as well as the wider community and Anabaptist young adults, could have a broader understanding of the world around them and a real heart for issues of justice, compassion and human suffering."

Swaziland, a small and beautiful country surrounded by South Africa on three sides and bordering Mozambique, became the group's destination in part because of the dire statistic as having the highest percentage of HIV-infected citizens in the world. Swaziland is also a country where the emerging effectiveness of HIV programs initiated by faith-related organizations like FBS is visible.

Nxumalo said FBS was started in 1976 by a Swazi church leader who advocated for more training and Biblical instruction among Zionist churches and an MCCer helping establish a national council of churches in Swaziland. A youth section for FBS was started in 1986. Now headquartered in MCC's office in Manzini, the country's largest city with 80,000 residents, FBS holds various types of focused HIV/AIDS education and training.

HIV/AIDS Project Coordinator Sithembile Dlamini said FBS began self-funding AIDS-related projects four years ago, when its executive team became increasingly convinced of the potential effectiveness of Christian messages about HIV – both at the personal level and for a body of believers. Around 60 percent of Swazi Christians are affiliated with Zionist churches, and most are rural. A health team was organized more than three years ago with a youth drama team that began sharing their messages about HIV/AIDS in dozens of churches. In a program they carefully design themselves, the group of two dozen volunteers performs skits, sings and dances, and a sermon about the need for Christians to overcome stigmas about HIV/AIDS is delivered.

Said Nxumalo, "When we first started doing this work in churches, people said, 'It's okay to hear about this, but why should we be bothered?' But it helped that we were Zionists, not someone coming in from the outside."

Dlamini said FBS does not know of any other groups in Swaziland doing church visits related to HIV/AIDS that involve effective use of drama. The energetic team offers practical, biblically based messages about how individuals can protect themselves and others through abstinence and faithfulness in marriage, both of which run counter to societal norms rooted in traditional Swazi cultural practices that contribute to, with poverty and gender inequality, as significant factors in the spread of HIV. In a country that has a strong oral tradition, this is becoming of greater interest to nonreligious organizations that are seeking to address behavior-change issues that are at the heart of the spread of the epidemic.

FBS has also sponsored training for 22 volunteers, from 11 churches to give home-based care for congregation and community members with HIV/AIDS, such as Phumile. In addition to sensitively providing information about HIV/AIDS as well as nutritional counseling, supplements and other supplies, these volunteers – currently all women – become confidants to the patients and their caretakers.

Nxumalo, Dlamini and Eastern Mennonite Mission (EMM) service worker Rene Hostetter organized the group's visits to a government ministry, nongovernmental and faith-based organizations, schools, clinics, community gardens, orphan programs, company employers, public markets and family homes, which provided access to both big-picture perspectives and deeply personal stories.

"There's a great benefit to drawing on the resources of an agency like MCC," said Stoltzfus. "Mainstream journalists are often accused of relying too heavily on high-powered sources, the business and government elite. While MCC doesn't ignore the people in power, the agency does have a broader field of contacts who can help to paint a more honest, accurate portrait of a place. That has particular resonance for reporters."

Early in the week, the group visited the government's National Emergency Response Committee for HIV/AIDS (NERCHA), the organization working with the Swaziland Ministry of Health and charged with managing funds flowing to the country for addressing HIV education, prevention and medical care, the orphan crisis, blood supply issues, distribution of medicine and concern for societal issues. NERCHA Director Derek von Wissel, a former minister of finance, said that high awareness of the pandemic has not translated into less risk-taking behavior, and that HIV-positive people remain unwilling or are afraid to admit their status – observations echoed throughout the week by nurses and health professionals, HIV educators, employers and those living with the disease. An underlying factor in the high infiltration of HIV is poverty – unemployment is over 40 percent, and even higher in rural areas where the majority of the population lives, and two-thirds of Swazis live below the poverty line. Gender inequality and culturally influenced behaviors are also significant factors, as described by numerous Swazis interviewed by the GC team.

Goshen junior Dawit Kebede, a peace, justice and conflict studies major from Ethiopia, said he was interested in joining the group in order to "find out how grim the reality of AIDS is in Swaziland" and also consider vocational connections. He said that a multi-pronged response by African countries to the pandemic will be significant to determining the continent's future.

"I am planning to work in Africa primarily on development issues, focusing on education, HIV/AIDS, etc.," Kebede said. "From the trip, I have learned about some parallels among African cultures. The challenge would be to come up with solutions to tackle cultural impediments, like talking about stigma."

The Goshen group recognized that there are stigmas to overcome in the U.S., as well, in talking about HIV/AIDS. "My generation of young people has grown up knowing about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. However, because it is sexually related, it's perhaps hard to talk about – especially in church settings," said Groff. "I hope young people in my community would seek out more information about the AIDS pandemic and the complex issues that underlie its destructiveness instead of jumping to conclusions about the people living with AIDS."

Groff shared Phumile's story in a Goshen College convocation in April and has written a profile for the student newspaper and is submitting articles for publication. In addition to print journalism, two cameras provided more than 20 hours of digital tape that will be produced by a team of faculty and students into a video presentation to be shown first to youth and interested adults at the 2005 Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada gathering in July in Charlotte, N.C. A five-minute audio documentary already completed by Steininger has aired on the campus radio station and received a second-place prize in the 2005 Indiana Association of School Broadcasters. Additionally, a column written by Associate Professor of Communication Duane Stoltzfus, was printed in the editorial section of the Indianapolis Star in April. The group has also talked to churches.

'To live with a skeleton': Jabu Matsebula

By Dawit Kebede '06

jabu "To live with a skeleton…" Those words were uttered by Jabu Matsebula, a woman in her late 40s who lives in Manzini, Swaziland, 8,774.96 miles from Goshen. Jabu spoke these words when we asked her about her children, as she expressed her anguish that her children have to "live with a skeleton in the house." She first found out she was HIV-positive in 1999, when she wasn't healing after undergoing major surgery. Her husband died of complications of AIDS soon after, in 2000, after a terrible ordeal with the vicious killer disease. Jabu knew very little about the HIV virus at the time of her diagnosis, which has substantially reduced her immunity and rendered her unable to work.

Jabu is a remarkable woman living with faith and dignity despite the unpredictable nature of the virus which, in the Swazi tongue, is "wyciwane bulalave" (roughly translated as "a pandemic virus that kills the whole nation"). While she finds strength and comfort in her Christian faith, she is a victim of stigma, and carries the woman's burden in holding a precarious, subjugated position in the Swazi society. Swazi women and girls are now among the primary victims of HIV, and Jabu is just one single soul among tens of thousands of weak voices which are being silenced by this stealthy killer.

A mother of four, Jabu hopes that her two youngest children will also be able to get a good education and take lessons from their parents' tragic ends. Losing her husband has been a crushing blow she says, and she has been struggling to raise her children with a very limited income.

The Scripture that Jabu said she returns to most often is Isaiah 41:10 – "Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness." These eternal words are read from her Bible with unwavering spirit from a dying woman – a victim of a virus that has posed the greatest danger Africa has had to face since the days of slavery.

'You are my son': Vusi Matsebula

By Anna Groff '06

Vusi Matsebula first talked publicly about his HIV-positive status in 1996, and has since made sure to note why his friends call him "Slender-by-Nature."

"I wanted to drive the message home that, in my case, yes, I am HIV-positive, but I am slender by nature," he said concerning his pragmatic nickname.

Matsebula was the second person in the kingdom of Swaziland to openly share about the disease, more than 10 years after the first case was recorded in his native country. Then, he said, "[HIV] was not spoken about like it is today. You can imagine how difficult it was to come out in the midst of those people who are not even aware of that information [about HIV/AIDS]."

It was earlier, in 1995, that he attended the first international conference of people living with HIV. There, Matsebula said, he learned that "in order to survive, you need to organize yourself psychologically. You need to accept yourself and accept the condition and move on." After the conference, he went home and began informing his family and friends about his status – one at a time – though he hesitated in telling his mother.

"I was longing for her to know, but I had no guts to tell her," he said. Matsebula's sister, who supported him, finally told their mother. He recalled, "As soon as I got home, she didn't say a word. She came right to me and hugged me. That spoke so many words in a single action. It told me, 'You are my son.'"

Matsebula continued, "A lot of people still view HIV/AIDS as a shameful disease. The stigma is worse in the church arena." He said he wants the church to learn that the HIV status of an individual has nothing to do with that person's current spirituality. "What pains me is so many [people with HIV/AIDS] suffer in silence."

Matsebula said that fear is a significant reason that infected persons remain silent about their illness. One of his own fears was that he would never have the opportunity to be married; yet he will celebrate his second wedding anniversary later this year. Matsebula serves as an HIV information and research officer for Lutheran Development Service and Counseling in Swaziland.

'It heals my spirit': Esther & Um-gcibélo Dube

By Rachel Lapp

Like most Swazis, Esther Dube and her family make their home in the lush, rolling countryside of the southwest African nation, far from the relative modernity of urban life in the capitol of Mbabane or the manufacturing center of Manzini. While the Boyane district is not the most remote in Swaziland, the Dubes are far from any medical facilities, and it is difficult to know when the region's only car service to the hospital might be able to reach her.

dubes Esther is thankful that a community member – one of 22 trained through her Zionist church by Faith Bible School to provide HIV/AIDS home-based care support – is close enough for regular visits, providing skills on how to take care of HIV/AIDS patients as well as a sympathetic ear.

Accustomed to the hard work of subsistence farming that has occupied much of her more than 60 years – it is considered rude to ask a person's age – Esther is the primary caretaker for her daughter, Um-gcibélo, an unmarried woman in her 40s who sold cigarettes around area farmsteads before her HIV took a turn for the worse, and she become seriously ill. Her brothers and sisters drop by sometimes, but it is Esther who is her constant "minder."

Um-gcibélo has been bedridden for more than three months, lying on a cot inside one of the earthen-walled, thatched-roof huts that make up the family homestead. To see her elbows, scabbed and roughened doing the work to shift her body when she is uncomfortable, is to see only a small part of her suffering. "All I can say is that it is painful," she said of her illness. "I wish to be well. I wish to know God."

Um-gcibélo took doctor-prescribed medication for a while, she said, but because of transportation constraints has not been able to continue taking antiretroviral drugs, or ARVs, on a consistent basis to support her immune system. She spent some time in the hospital, according to her mother, who recognizes when Um-gcibélo is too weak to continue to talk, but she was discharged because the hospital was so full; she left without knowing what follow-up to do.

Esther said she is grateful for the visits from people from her church, particularly her neighbor trained to help with home-based care. "There is no one else to care for [my daughter]. It is so difficult, so painful. It heals my spirit to see people come to assist," said Dube, touching her face with fingers bent from the demands of work on the homestead, including the fieldwork that she now has no time to do.

"Everyone, almost everyone, has these problems in their homes," Esther said, but she hasn't talked to anyone in a similar situation – responsibilities and perhaps certain stigmas can be isolating. "I can only trust that the Lord is the answer, the one who can give us hope and direction and also curb the virus as well."
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