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CYBERPRIEST

Father Gérard tackles the unseen enemy

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BROTHER OF MERCY: Father Gérard Lagleder, a priest with heavenly inspiration whose earthly enterprise is bringing relief to the needy.

Aids threatens to have a devastating impact on the provincial economy. Already the Mandini / Isithebe area on the KwaZulu-Natal North Coast is beginning to feel the brunt of the epidemic, and resources to deal with this are scarce. But Tribune Reporter GREG ARDÉ and photographer GRANT ERSKINE found a special man who is preparing for the avalanche.

Caring for the sick, the lonely and the dying including dozens of Aids patients has taken on a new dimension thanks to the efforts of an extraordinary Catholic priest and his flock in the grimy industrialised region, of Isithebe on KwaZulu-Natal's North Coast.

Cyberpriest Father Gérard Lagleder, 42, was a nurse in Bavaria before he joined the priesthood, and the progressive care centre he has established in the economic hub of southern Zululand is a testament to no-nonsense German efficiency.

Last rites

Five years ago, after delivering the last rites to an old woman who died of malnutrition and neglect, Father Gérard became involved in fund-raising for a local family that was almost destitute.

The priest turned this adversity into advantage.

With the help of parishioners Clare Kalkwarf and Paul Thabethe and overseas and local donations from as little as R2, innovation conquered desperation and now has brought comfort to the scores of people who die from the curse of the 20th Century.

They built the Brotherhood of Blessed Gérard's Care Centre a year ago and run the 20-bed hospice and a range of allied projects with the help of volunteers on a monthly budget of about R35 000, made up largely of donations from abroad.

The international interest in the project is in no small measure attributed to the cybersurfing skills of Father Gérard who has posted a site on the World Wide Web - the first of its kind in Africa.

Obviously no ordinary priest, with his cellular telephone and his calling cards, Father Gérard prefers to dress in an open-neck white shirt which reveals his belly when he laughs. [In fact he usually wears a white uniform shirt with clerical collar, which was in the laundry when the author of this article came for the interview.]

Under the guidance of the priest, Mrs Kalkwarf and Dr Thabethe, the community has a care centre with a clinic for malnourished babies, a bursary fund for locals, a crèche, old-age friendship club, sewing school, Aids education team and hospice, ambulance and mobile clinic.

It has received such accolades that Father Gérard has been asked to start a similar facility in Zimbabwe, but he says the success of the centre is determined locally.

When he set to work, he pledged not to fall prey to the usual missionary ethos which renders the community helpless when the missionaries leave, so all the projects emphasise empowerment.

"Ja - it must be a thing that stands on its own two feet, as we Germans say."

Mothers are taught about nutrition for infants; pensioners' socialising is an opportunity for the elderly to recycle greeting cards, and families who want their sickly next of kin cared for must learn how to nurse them at home.

Blessed Gérard's hospice is only occupied in the evening [i.e. over night] when somebody who has been discharged from hospital is too sick to be sent home.

Many of the patients who are sent home [from hospital] to clear the bed for someone with a better prognosis, often recover for a while and die with dignity thanks to the centre's nursing instructions.

Spotlessly clean, the centre boasts a hydraulic bath, wheelchair showers and a sluice room with a fancy machine that washes and steams bedpans.

Bridging the gap between hospital and home is a new approach to primary healthcare, and the staff is gearing itself up for more Aids work as the epidemic takes hold.

"It's daunting living here, but I didn't want to say to people 'the good Lord loves you and will take care of you in heaven'. "Instead I wanted to say 'the good Lord loves you through our hands'. That's my personal conviction.

Body and soul

"I can't sit back while people are dying and give them cheap consolation ... we must look after the body and the soul," Father Gérard says.

The facility is open free of charge to people of all faiths, although it has a Catholic chapel, which is home to a relic of Blessed Gérard who founded the Order of Malta. Encased in a gold cross is a tiny piece of the nurse who cared for Christians and others who were forced to flee Jerusalem 900 years ago.

To honour the care centre in KwaZulu-Natal, Catholic authorities at the Vatican in Rome agreed to open the seal of the Blessed's reliquary and remove a piece from his bones.

The centre's Web site is: http://bbg.org.za/carecentre/

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HELPING HAND: Dr Paul Thabethe, a medical practitioner in Sundumbili who has joined his parish priest in his fight to help the poor.

AIDS: grim reality of the disease

Nobody knows exactly when the Aids scourge will take hold, but the informed few in Mandini, adjoining Isithebe and Sundumbili fear the worst. A nurse working at a factory in the area has told Fr Gérard and Clare Kalkwarf that her testing showed that 80% of the workforce were HIV positive and that in one month the company she works for boarded eight workers with Aids-related illnesses. The figures cannot be verified and two doctors in the area agree that while figures might be higher than elsewhere, HIV infection is not that bad. A businessman said: "We don't know exactly yet and can only assume it's having a serious effect on the economy because of the number of people who are sick and dying in the area. It is a serious problem, some people have called Sundumbili 'death city'. Eighty percent is a bit steep. I would say about 60%, but that's unsubstantiated. People die and the death certificates say natural causes, but they are as young as 25 years old." A local doctor, who asked not to be named said: "My gut feeling is that it's between 35-50%, but that's without any research. There are lots of funerals. The majority of people won't accept that Aids is killing everyone. The problem is you can't write Aids as a cause on the death certificate, so people are registered as having died of meningitis or something else. It's a hidden catastrophe." Dr Paul Thabethe, who helped establish Bl. Gérard's care centre, also believes 80 % HIV infection is too high an estimate. "This will play a more important role as the effects of the Aids epidemic really hit home." Mercy Makgalamele, 27, of the National Association for People Living With HIV and Aids, herself HIV positive, has lost her husband and her baby to the disease. She has praised Fr Gérard's initiative. "People don't really believe what they hear about Aids, they say 'this will never happen to me', but there are people out there who are affected and they need support. Aids is no longer just a Department of Health issue."


SUNDAY TRIBUNE · MAY 17 1998

Minor corrections of the original have been made for this online edition. They are marked in [brackets] or by using Italics.


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