The AIDS Crisis in Paradise

Today, my brother, Father Gerhard Lagleder, and I are going off on a photo-safari, but it’s different than the kind everyone knows from South Africa. We aren’t off to photograph lions, elephants and giraffes although we do head off into breath-taking scenery. The hills roll softly down into the banks of the Tugela River. Palms perfect the picture of a paradise where, right now, a terrible war is raging. We stand on a hill and look down into the valley. Gerhard says: “Here, this is the valley of death, the AIDS pit. 90% of the population is infected with HIV, many of them have AIDS.”

Father Gerhard’s goal is show us the human side life inside a global emergency, an absolute catastrophe. Our route takes us through the slums that have sprung up around the paper factory in the Industrial area of Isithebe, where about 50.000 people live, and into the Township of Sundumbili where the population is about 100.000.  Here, I have to confront absolute poverty. The unpaved roads can be passed only by jeep.
Thanks to new-comer Peter Wiedemann, who asked for donations to the Brotherhood of Blessed Gerard in lieu of gifts for his 50th birthday, a new vehicle was bought when donations from his friends and family were matched by Rotary Clubs International. Since the work of the Brotherhood is carried out almost exclusively through donations, they’re always grateful to those who remember their fellow human beings.
“For 18 years, we always had to take the shortest, quickest route possible through an area riddled with criminals and danger. The car was always locked, the windows were always closed;” Father Gerhard says. Today, we leave both doors unlocked, the windows are always wide open.  
“Please, photograph everything. Photograph as much as you can,” my brother tells me. “We have to show other people just how extreme the poverty here really is.”        

I photograph the little houses and cottages built by greedy business concerns for the factory workers.  The workers have just six square meters of living space and have to pay huge rents for this miserable space. They are built like row houses, one right into the other. There is no running water. It all has to be carried a long way home in large canisters. There are mountains of garbage everywhere. Between the piles of waste; chickens, goats and children compete for room to move.

The "butchery"

Laundry and plastic water barrels

I cannot describe the place where animals are slaughtered. Hygiene is non-existent. It’s a place where diseases find their ideal breeding-ground. Corrugated iron, tin, barbed wire, old tires, plastic sheets and pieces of firewood are among the most common building materials. About 30% of the children don’t go to school because their families simply can’t afford to pay the school fees.  

As we drive by, people run out of the cottages to see us. They always wave and call out: “Baba, Baba Gerard!“

The children jump for joy and the adults laugh at them. Many of them know my brother from visits to the hospice where they, or their relatives, have stayed for treatment.

Yes, a lot has changed over the past 18 years! Everyone knows the Brotherhood’s vehicle. It brings help, though food deliveries, directly into the township to those who cannot work because they are sick. They also know the Brotherhood through the sewing school through which many women have been trained to work as seamstresses and some even have sewing schools of their own.  They also know that it brings medicine to the sick and scholarships to children who otherwise could not attend school. These people are learning that education is the way to break the cycle of poverty. Those who go to school find good jobs, those who find good jobs earn good money, those who earn good money can afford to move away from the slums. Those of us who live in Western Democracies don’t have to pay school fees. We should be more grateful for the rich educational opportunities that we have.

My brother points out one of the cottages and explains how one of the children, who now lives in Blessed Gerard’s Children’s Home, had to be taken from there. Put shortly, he was sick and being severely abused. Compassionate witnesses called social services who contacted the Care Centre.  Another child was abandoned so soon after birth that the placenta was still attached, was found in a garbage heap. An aide who works with the Brotherhood bundled him up and brought him to the children’s home. I have met this particular child in the children’s home. He hugged me and looked at me with smiling eyes. I would never have guessed that his life’s story had such a sad beginning.

I am having flash backs: Picures that I have seen keep coming back to my mind, situations I have been part of, a reality that I touched with my hands and that touched my heart in turn.

This page is part of the Newsletter No. 29 of the Brotherhood of Blessed Gérard

Back to the homepage of the Brotherhood of Blessed Gérard

This page was last updated on Tuesday, 15 January 2013 12:50:18