“Families and the Church Should Work Together”

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.

Needles in Quicksand

I knew qualitative research wasn’t easy.  I did not expect it to be this hard.

Certainly the greatest lesson in all this work is recognizing the value of community and of the individual person’s contribution (or lack thereof).  I would not be able to have accomplished as much as I have if not for the hard work and know-how of the Kheth’Impilo staff member, Frieda Kasper, who’s been helping me track down participants for my study.  Trying to find HIV-positive Catholic women in the areas of Cape Town where we are working is, in Frieda’s words, “like trying to find a needle in quicksand without a magnet.”

It’s just that bad.

Cultural differences notwithstanding, I have to balance my urgent need to meet my goals with the reality that the NGO I’m working with is really just doing me a favor.  Everyone has other jobs and responsibilities and so there are few people who can really take the time to assist me in reaching my target number of participants, except for Frieda, who was asked to clear her schedule this past week to help me and help me she has done in spades.  A former community organizer, she goes door to door, working waiting rooms, making phone calls and following leads with her contacts in the clinics and homes in the Wallacedene and Bloekombos neighborhoods to find women for my study.

Kheth’Impilo (“Choose Life”) is a support network that works with the municipal clinics.  As such, they do not keep records of their patients’ religious affiliations.  As if finding Catholics wasn’t hard enough, then comes the issue of HIV-status.  Often, even if we can track down women who meet the qualifications for my study (to be 18 years or older, raised or practicing Catholic, HIV-positive, and not pregnant at the time of interview), some are embarrassed to reveal their HIV-status to a stranger, even one who promises anonymity and the fact that their secrets are leaving the continent with me in a week.  I’ve had at least three women walk in for interviews having been cleared by Frieda as meeting the specifications and who either recant on their status or flat out deny their status to me personally even before the interview can begin.  It pains me to know that I can’t interview those who deny their status upfront, because then I can’t give them the R100 gift card I’ve been distributing as a thank you.  if women knew of these upfront, I’d have a line of women knocking on my door telling me they are Catholic just to get the gift card (and yes, I’ve already had a few of these as well).

It’s heartening to know that after the interviews, I can provide something for them in the form of a small thank you–a R100 ($10) gift card to Pick ‘n’ Pay, a local supermarket chain.  Most of the women in these neighborhoods of informal settlements go a week without a meal and they are often sent to a local soup kitchen by the clinic for a daily meal.  A $10 gift card can go a long way toward food for women who are looking for work and with families to feed at home.  Because I offer this as a thank you and not an incentive (so they do not know they will be receiving it beforehand), they are often overjoyed and a few have clapped their hands.  One called me on my local cell to thank me again after leaving the office.

As for the results of these interviews, let’s just say I’ve come to the right women.  Though they are largely women of few words, they have strong convictions and the overriding theme emerging in their voices is that the church has a responsibility to teach its children well or it may soon itself be searching for its children like needles in quicksand.

On the Ground in Cape Town

I’m closing in on five full days here in Cape Town, South Africa.  Ask anyone who knows me well and they will tell you I’m well-traveled and, with that knowledge, let me tell you that this is one of the most gorgeous, captivating, and intriguing places I’ve encountered.


There’s a familiar smokiness in the air uncommon to urban settings in the U.S. and Europe but comforting to those who’ve known the subaltern.  Dubbed “The Rainbow Nation” by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu in the aftermath of apartheid, the people and culture are represented well by this title and I am fascinated not only by the lively mix of races, cultures, and languages but also by the pride South Africans take in this diversity–I only wish I could see more of this back home, U.S. of A.!


The physical setting of Cape Town is stunningly set around Table Mountain and between two bays of clear blue Atlantic Ocean.  I must constantly remind myself to keep my eyes on the road while driving (on the left!) as they are frequently beckoned by the gorgeous land- and seascapes.  Wintry July has lows in the 50s and highs in the high 60s/low 70s.  Americans are not a common sight here in South Africa and I am continually (pleasantly) surprised when people ask me where I’m from rather than automatically peg me as an American.  Handshakes are less common than Americans: South Africans seem comfortable simply to stand in mutual acknowledgment when making a new acquaintance and I’ve gotten more than my fair share of dead-fish hands when I reach out for a handshake and some don’t seem to know when to let go.


I’m very excited to be working with an award-winning HIV/AIDS treatment organization, Kheth’Impilo, that provides services throughout the Cape area.  Next week looks to be an exciting, action-packed week of interviews in areas beyond the posh neighborhoods of central Cape Town.  I am so grateful to so many who have made all this research possible, especially Dean Nancy Busch, Nicol Gotsis of Fordham’s GSAS, Michele Kuchera of Fordham’s IRB office, my advisor, Christine Firer Hinze and her spouse, Brad Hinze; the wonderful staff at the University of Pretoria including Dr. Antoinette Lombard, Dr. Charlene Carbonatto and Ms. Tracey Andrew, and Kheth’Impilo’s Dr. Eula Mothibi, Dr. Michael Phillips, Ms. Florence Madikane, and Ms. Frieda Kasper.  I am continually reminded that the academy is a team effort and I am grateful for the many networks, including the Santander Summer Grants, that have made this effort possible.  It is so exciting to be a part of such an incredible group of scholars and leaders.