The AIDS epidemic in Ethiopia has orphaned many children. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
Sister Fana Gebray visits a few children in her community’s orphanage, Addis Ababa. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
A sick mother holds her child. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
Sister Margaret Abraha visits the home of two children whose parents died of AIDS. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
A doctor from the Latchie Clinic teaches hundreds of schoolchildren about AIDS, Mekele. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
The Daughters of Charity bring health awareness to poor families. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
What have the Daughters of Charity learned from their experiences in Ethiopia? That everyone there rich and poor, educated and illiterate, elderly and infant is directly or indirectly affected by AIDS. No one gets by unscathed.
As a result, most of the Daughters projects in Ethiopia, in social work, education or health, include an AIDS element.
The enormity of the AIDS epidemic in Ethiopia is staggering. According to the most recent United Nations estimates, three million of the 64 million people in Ethiopia are infected with the AIDS virus. One million children are orphaned. Fifty to 70 percent of prostitutes, many in militarized zones, test positive for H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS.
The disease is spreading at such an alarming rate that by 2010, seven million to 10 million Ethiopians will be infected. More than 1.7 million, or 15 to 25 percent of Ethiopias children, will be orphaned.
The fight against AIDS. Sister Aster Zewdie, the Provincial for Ethiopias Daughters of Charity, said she and the rest of her community of 67 sisters did not enter religious life to sit at a desk crunching numbers. They joined the Daughters to get their hands dirty.
In a spirit of humility, simplicity and charity, the Daughters of Charity have stepped into action to serve those in most need, following the example of their 17th-century founder, the French priest St. Vincent de Paul.
It is our charism that we serve the poor through Christ and we serve Christ through the poor, Sister Aster said.
St. Vincent didnt want Christians to stay away from the poor by praying.
He said, If the poor are looking for you, you leave God for God. So you go out from the chapel, and you go to serve these poor people. He always said, Go find the poor.
With this in mind, the sisters say their morning prayers and head out to work.
Yet they are also the first to admit that the work of the Daughters of Charity in Ethiopia, a country roughly twice the size of Texas, does little to even register a blip on the fight-against-AIDS radar screen.
Sister Aster said: Most of our sisters are very young. We are trying our best, but we are really limited when we see the need we have here in Ethiopia.
AIDS programs in Addis Ababa. In District 23, one of the poorest sections of Addis Ababa, the sisters run an urban development program that builds roads, provides technical training and offers income-generating activities for the 20,000 residents. Known to have one of the highest disease rates in the country, District 23 is at the epicenter of the AIDS crisis.
Realizing this, the Daughters of Charity began an AIDS awareness campaign. Each week, a group of health trainers teaches AIDS awareness and prevention to the community. Serving tea, coffee and biscuits to the villagers as they arrive, the organizers create a pleasant atmosphere that everyone enjoys.
Then the role-play begins. One adult woman takes the part of an adolescent boy pressured by friends to drink alcohol and act irresponsibly. Another female plays an H.I.V.-positive wife who is ostracized by her family, friends and community once news spreads of her disease. And a boy, in a squeaky high voice, plays a single woman who refuses the overtures of her male suitors.
While the subject matter is presented in a lighthearted manner, the various real-life scenarios communicate deadly serious lessons to all segments of the audience. For the children, young adults, parents and elderly, myths about AIDS are debunked and misconceptions are corrected. Awareness the single best preventive measure to fight AIDS is heightening.
In addition to educating the general public, the health workers also make home visits to the sick, arrange testing for symptomatic individuals and further direct those who test positive to the appropriate counseling centers. These home visits are helping salvage wrecked lives.
AIDS programs in the north Mekele. In the Tigre region of northern Ethiopia, AIDS diagnoses have risen sharply. Limited awareness and health care access certainly encourage the spread of the disease. Regardless, the major contributing factor may be the recent skirmishes between Ethiopia and Eritrea just miles away.
Since 1998, this fighting has forced many rural Ethiopians, particularly single mothers, to migrate to Mekele, the norths urban center. A lackluster economy, exacerbated by the five-year drought in the region, has made employment for the new arrivals difficult to come by. Given few alternatives, many women resort to prostitution to earn money to feed their children a perilous choice that often leads to many parents becoming H.I.V.-positive and, eventually, orphaned children roaming the streets.
The Daughters of Charity in Mekele battle AIDS on several fronts:
Sister Alemash Tesfay, who runs the Latchie Clinic, aims to increase awareness about AIDS among children. Four times a month, she sends a team of health educators to local grade schools. Frequently, more than 1,000 youngsters learn about AIDS and other health issues.
At the Gebremichael Street Boys Center, Sister Medhin Tesfays group provides meals, showers, educational assistance, medical services, counseling and other necessities to almost 70 homeless boys ages 7 to 18. They also gather to have fun, which has been in too short supply in their young lives.
The Adi Haki Health Clinic, under the supervision of Sister Margaret Abraha, works directly with AIDS patients and their families. The clinic offers the patients counseling, food and material support while they are living and continues to assist their orphaned children through grade 10. As of July 2002, the program supported 63 AIDS patients, 87 family relatives and 55 orphans.
Sister Evelyn faults ignorance and lack of openness in the community for this discrimination. Sister Aster also criticizes the treatment of persons living with AIDS in Ethiopian society.
Dont sit near him. For persons living with AIDS, the stigma they bear when the community learns of their sickness is often as feared and debilitating as the disease.
As Sister Evelyn Puesta, coordinator of the Daughters of Charitys work in Mekele since 1998, explained: These patients are very poor. Once they are diagnosed, they are rejected at work and they are cast out from their families.
At the moment, AIDS is not a sickness that Ethiopians have accepted, she said. With any other sickness, like cancer, at least people are compassionate. They are sorry. They are ready to help you.
With AIDS, people are afraid. They want to avoid you like, Dont sit near him. Dont touch him. Dont do this and that. We think that even by shaking hands we can get the sickness.
Ethiopians by nature are a very affectionate people. So when people just ignore them or do not want to talk to them, they feel it very badly.
Because of these prejudices, this disease is rapidly killing our young people, our educated people. Many orphans are left behind. Its very sad.
Sister Aster may at times feel overwhelmed by the fight against AIDS, but by no means is she the only one. Many Ethiopian Daughters of Charity have lost brothers and sisters to the disease. Sister Aster told the story of one young sister who worked in the urban development program visiting AIDS patients:
She simply couldnt stand it. Her patients were dying all the time. And she was exhausted. All her energy was gone everything, you know. She would say, The person I knew last week has died. The person I spoke to yesterday has died.
She was constantly seeing death and that affected her. So we changed her job. Now shes trained as a Montessori teacher, but still helping the poor.
Challenge. Sister Asters greatest challenge is to keep her sisters spirits strong in the face of great sorrow and adversity.
We are trying to educate the sisters and encourage them, she said. And say gently, You know, these people will die.
But you just have to love them, be compassionate to them, speak to them a few kind words, so that they at least know that somebody cares and the Lord also loves them more than anybody else. And then, hope that they die in peace.
Peter Lemieux, recipient of the 2001 Dorothea Lange Fellowship for photography, recently returned from Ethiopia on assignment.