It’s been an incredible two and a half weeks here in Cape Town, South Africa. I’ve managed to complete my research here in excess of my goal of twenty interviews with twenty-three. During this time, I’ve seen my interview skills improve in the quality of data I’ve been able to collect from these incredible women I’ve been privileged to interview.
Life here in South Africa, and especially in the neighborhoods in which I’ve been working, is a difficult and complex one. Many of my interviewees have referred to “the situation we live in here” or “reality as it is for us”–explaining the difficulty of high unemployment, the overwhelming prevalence of HIV/AIDS and the struggle of HIV education to meet the needs of the people, of rape and kidnapping, the poverty, the struggle to provide for their own families, the challenges presented by African family and gender dynamics, and the vulnerability of women in society. These women are clear about the fact that the church is a powerful teacher and as such has a responsibility to educate people, especially the youth, about HIV, STDs and STIs because the “church is not only a place where they can teach about Jesus or God but where they can teach us about how to live our lives.” Amen, sisters, amen.
My final interviewee, a former debt collector and married mother of three who was laid off two years ago, put it best when she said that “the church needs to learn what the families are teaching their children so that families and the church can work together”–and she was very clear that it was the church who had something to learn from these women and what it is they choose to teach their children about how to prevent the spread of disease.
Most importantly, many women spoke of the necessity of the church to teach about HIV and its prevention, to encourage conversation about it, to make it less taboo so that HIV-positive persons can learn to accept themselves and their diagnoses and so that their communities to learn to become more accepting of them. Some suggested a day of voluntary HIV testing when church members could all join together for HIV education, counseling and testing and floated the idea of instituting an age for mandatory HIV testing, like mandatory ages for mammograms or other regular medical exams. These are all suggestive of a desire for a church in greater solidarity with HIV-positive persons.
In the end, what has made the difference for these women has been the presence of accepting and unconditional support–whether from family members, friends, partners, social workers, clinicians, or vowed religious. Some are fortunate enough to find genuine support groups that do not spread gossip and in which the women can discuss and process their feelings. Others are sorely lacking support groups or have not reached out because they are not ready to disclose their status. At the end of each interview, I would offer the women an opportunity to ask any questions they might have of me and I was genuinely surprised when on a number of occasions, the women would ask me for advice on how to cope with people who discriminate against them because of their HIV status or tell me how good it felt to talk about their experiences with HIV. My unspoken hope for this research is that it brings about healing for these women and for the church and I’m grateful to recognize even the small ways in which this hope is taking flesh.