A journey of compassion and solidarity with people facing HIV and AIDS
Fr. Elphège Quenum, SJ (AOC)
My first involvement in HIV and AIDS ministry happened in 2003. I was sent as regent to the new Jesuit organization, African Jesuit AIDS Network (AJAN), created by the Jesuit Major Superiors of Africa and Madagascar and put under the leadership of Fr Michael Czerny. Being part of the infancy of AJAN became also the beginning of the journey into the reality of HIV/AIDS and issues related to it.
AJAN is a network of Jesuit centres and initiatives that support and assist the people infected and affected by HIV and AIDS in more than 16 countries across Africa. Its headquarters is in Nairobi, Kenya. In June 2017 AJAN celebrated its 15th anniversary. It was a celebration of 15 years of compassion, solidarity, respect and protection of the dignity of human being as image of God.
The mission of AJAN emerged from the need of sharing, discernment and common reflection on the Jesuit individual experiences on HIV and AIDS. The Jesuits and collaborators providing local responses to the challenge of HIV and AIDS, realized that it would be enriching and fruitful to come together, pray and discern about the HIV and AIDS related suffering and vulnerability of the population that they were serving. The scope of the challenge was and is so devastating that an individual response is not enough. AJAN is then created to initiate synergy and enrich the Jesuit local responses at a continental level.
The data shared in July 2017 by UNAIDS indicated that 36.7 million people are living with HIV virus in the World. Out of this number 70% live in Sub-Saharan Africa which constitute only 15% of the global population. When we take into consideration the populations infected and affected in other continents, we realize that Black people bear 80% of the burden of HIV and AIDS.
In Africa HIV/AIDS is a global public health issue of greater concern of our time, and perhaps, in the history of human kind, and one of the top causes of death. In the face of this devastating situation, the Jesuits in Africa and their collaborators, like in the Contemplation to gain Love (Spiritual Exercises N° 230-237) understood that their love of God and of the neighbour should not just be expressed in words but should be translated in action. We understood that "compassion is action, an action discerned together." (GC 36, Decree 1, N°20). This has been expressed in various initiatives such as establishment of hospitals and dispensaries, care and accompaniment in parishes and social centres, HIV prevention programs in schools and youth centres, advocacy, capacity building for the youth and economic empowerment for the most vulnerable and marginalised people such as girls and women, refugees, immigrants and prisoners.
Working with the people living with HIV and AIDS those affected, orphan and vulnerable children presented an opportunity for me to reflect about my life and my faith. As Pope Francis highlighted, "we are called to find Christ in the poor, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to understand them, and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them (Evangelii Gaudium, n. 198). It is also for us a work of justice, a justice discerned and enacted for the betterment of the poorest in the local communities.
On 1st December, we celebrated the World AIDS Day. This annual celebration occurs in a contradictory setting. We celebrate the achievements gained in the struggle against HIV/AIDS; reduction of deaths, reduction of mother to child transmission, availability of more and more materials, tools and drugs that nourish hope and improve the life of people living with HIV and AIDS. But we experienced also a reduction of interest and financial resources that hinder the poorest nations and populations from receiving quality service. In some areas, HIV and AIDS are no more an issue; in others, especially in Africa, it is still a burden on the poor populations. Many organizations are realigning their interventions to the new areas of attraction and of resources since HIV and AIDS is no more a profitable endeavour to them.
AJAN, in the words of Fr Orobator Agbonkhianmeghe, the president of JESAM "will be the last to quit the scene." AJAN, moved by its faith and commitment to Social Justice, especially to the voiceless is ready to uphold this ministry until HIV/AIDS virus is defeated. As long as a human being is threatened and weakened by HIV and AIDS, we will continue our mission. We will continue the battle till we reach an HIV and AIDS-free society.