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Dec 06 An outrageous injustice (Tearfund)

Catherine Thomas writes movingly of her encounter with Malawian mother Esther, whose struggle with AIDS was featured in last month’s Inspire

“I Love you I love you I love you I love you-oo …”

From a beaten-up battery-operated radio in the middle of rural Africa, English pop-star Natasha Bedingfield is singing her heart out. I’m crooning along out of tune and my new friend Esther is humming and swaying. Skilfully, she manages not to drop a stitch at the same time.

She’s knitting a hat to sell so she can buy food and clothes for her 10-year-old daughter. I’m wondering how this happened – how I got myself caught up in such an ordinary, intimate scene in a life so utterly different from my own. I thought I’d travelled to Malawi to report on a disaster, not to make a friend. Here it is, HIV, the greatest human disaster of our time. Singing along to a pop song.

I suppose that’s it. Putting the overwhelming statistics aside – that more than 20 million people have died of AIDS since 1981, that every minute today a child will be born with HIV – this is a disaster that is undeniably human. HIV attacks the heart of some of humanity’s most precious relationships: mothers and babies, husbands and wives. But with God’s help, we can all play a part in defeating it.

This winter, Tearfund is launching the Work a miracle appeal to raise £2 million to stop and reverse the spread of HIV. Never before has Tearfund appealed for money when there hasn’t been an obvious emergency – an earthquake, a famine, a flood. But the spread of HIV, the destruction caused by AIDS and the immeasurable impact on the world’s poorest people is no less urgent for not being in the headlines every day.

In the early days of AIDS in the 1980s, part of the Church’s response was to judge – to take the view that HIV was God’s punishment for the immoral. But that view holds no currency in the reality of Esther’s life.

She tells her husband time and time again that he should not have affairs: that having unprotected sex without telling the person you are HIV-positive is something akin to murder. But as one of his wives, Esther is his property. And why would a man take advice from a person he views like a pair of shoes?

To be fair, there’s no guarantee that Esther’s current husband infected her with HIV. It could have been the other way round. Esther’s first husband died, and she doesn’t know why – he hadn’t had a test for HIV. But how a person becomes HIV-positive isn’t the issue, for Esther or for the Christians who care for her.

We get talking on the way to Esther’s cotton field, and she tells me about the symptoms she experiences. Rashes. Palpitations. Pneumonia. Esther’s field is fiercely overgrown, as she was sick in bed for six months last year. “I’m only just able to come out in the sun again,” she says.

I’m struck by the terrible inconvenience of HIV, living in a village like this. How do you avoid the sun when an estate agent would sell your house using phrases like ‘studio with al fresco kitchen’ and ‘rustic open-air bathroom’? How do you store the multiple boxes of pills that make up your antiretroviral therapy if you don’t have a fridge? And how do you know when to take them if you’ve never learned to read or write?

I say terrible inconvenience, but surely outrageous injustice is more the phrase I need. That’s what I think that evening, as I try to swallow another Malawian meal of not-quite-cooked chips and choose not to touch the watery spinach in case I get food poisoning. I have all this choice and I’m healthy; Esther needs medication and she can’t afford to buy vegetables.

If Esther were a friend who lived down the road there would be more I could do – cook meals, babysit, go with her to hospital appointments. But the thousands of miles between Fombe village and Teddington don’t mean I can’t do anything. Praying, campaigning, setting up a direct debit – these things might not seem so connected but they do have an impact, for Esther and for millions of people like her.

How you can help

Just £7 a month can give a child the chance of an HIV-free start in life.

Tearfund needs to raise £60 million for HIV and AIDS-related work by 2015 – as part of its wider vision to lift millions out of poverty. It starts now with the Work a miracle appeal which aims to raise £2 million this year. A key component of Tearfund’s plan to stop the spread of AIDS by 2015 is to work through its local church partners to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

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