I sat thumbing through a worn copy of a South African women’s magazine in an up-to-date-looking doctor’s waiting room. It was very full today, but I figured my wait would not be long because the doctor was seeing my friend, my housekeeper of only four months, before most of the other patients. My mind was pre-occupied with the growing fear of what our family was about to face.
Tandy* came into our lives after a series of other housekeepers did not work out. She was desperately poor, and this job gave her a chance to improve her situation in life a little, and provide for her tiny, sickly four-year-old son. She was eager to work, and really loved being in the hustle and bustle of our home. Tandy loved to watch the Bible teaching preparations for the various classes my husband Rudy was teaching with church leaders and lay people of African Independent Churches in our city. She eventually joined one of the evening Bible studies. When I prepared the Bible lessons for a school of disadvantaged children, she loved recalling the Bible stories she had learned as a child.
In the two years we had been in Botswana, we had become well aware of the alarming statistics for HIV/AIDS in this country. Every week people were burying loved ones. Churches often had difficulty functioning because they were busy with funerals and the extensive African traditions related to death. We increasingly believed that we could not be involved in church work without addressing this situation somehow. But where would we begin?
Then Tandy got sick. First it was a bad case of Herpes Zoster, commonly known as shingles. Then we realized, looking at old pictures of her, that she had lost a lot of weight in the last while. Then there were the invasive sores in her mouth. Poor girl. In this country, the stigma of HIV/AIDS was, and still is, huge. Even though the doctors advised her to get a test because she appeared to have enough qualifying symptoms (including the fact of her very frail four-year-old, suggesting mother-to-child transmission of HIV), her fears of facing it were too great. She never did find out the truth. A year later Tandy died of complications probably related to HIV. Obviously, we cannot know for sure because she never agreed to an HIV test, but everything pointed to that. Two weeks after her death her son also died.
The tragedy of illness and death that we saw all around us had entered our own home. We were no longer mere on-lookers to the pain that the people of Botswana are facing in huge numbers.
Many global workers will be in areas where HIV is a concern. It is helpful for us to understand the virus and to be able to take some necessary precautions in our homes to protect ourselves, our families, and even to protect the infected person who is vulnerable to so many infections.
Our family (the children were 14, 12, and 9 at the time) discussed how we felt about having someone working in our home who was HIV positive. My husband and I explained, as we had learned, that the risk was fairly minimal of contracting the virus from casual human contact. We had some interesting dinner-table discussions on sex during these days, as we explained that it was through sexual contact, through contact from blood to blood and in mother-to-child transmission, that the virus is almost always passed. The first thing that we established was that even given the minimal risk of contracting the virus, we were committed to helping people in the name of Jesus in this country no matter what their HIV status was.
We were also committed to our relationship with Tandy, which for this time meant keeping her as a worker in our home as long as she was able to. We would take the future a step at a time as she would be unable to work anymore–possibly involving some kind of financial assistance.
As far as having regular contact with someone who has HIV, we learned that there are many opportunistic infections to which a person with such a weakened immune system is vulnerable, and we had to take some precautions in our home for those reasons. We explained to our housekeeper that she must wear strong rubber gloves when washing dishes and cleaning the bathroom fixtures. These are extra precautions which not everyone would feel necessary to take, but it made our kids feel safer. It would not eliminate the risk of cutting her finger and leaving blood somewhere, but would lessen it somewhat. Whenever she was sick with a cough, or any open sores or bleeding, we would give her a sick leave until she was better.
That was four years ago. Since then, we have seen many more people die. It is a degrading, humiliating kind of death. The situation is worse in the small population of Botswana than anywhere in the world. But we have been privileged to be part of a united effort on the part of Christians in this country to bring hope and courage and change to an otherwise hopeless situation. My husband helped start an inter-church counseling service which works in several of the 15 city council clinics and at a center that has been provided by another cross-cultural organization. I have been involved in counseling dozens of clients who have questions about HIV and desire to have an HIV test.
Our Bible classes have included teaching on marriage and family and youth issues to help strengthen marriages and healthy Christian relationships. The most exciting is a married couples’ fellowship that meets to encourage people in their marriages. My husband and I have been leading it for almost two years now, and a group of local couples is about to be trained to take it over. People are hungry to learn about these things. God has blessed these ministries immensely.
Eight years ago I would have been frightened at the prospect of working with a group of people infected with this deadly virus, but God has opened up doors for ministry and brought some wonderful people into our lives. I’m amazed at the joy he gives us in our Christian service even in seemingly hopeless situations.
At Tandy’s funeral, a small group of people approached my husband to continue the Bible classes that Tandy had started. Unbeknownst to us, she had been teaching all the Bible lessons she had been learning at the Bible study, to a group of people in her home. Her neighbors had taken the Word so eagerly, but they had all been too shy to come to the classes. In spite of the sadness of her death, we found joy in the reality of God’s presence in the lives of a small group of believers studying the Word of God. AIDS is still a tragic, horrible plague on this continent. But we know that God can turn even this situation to good!
*For the usual confidentiality reasons, I have changed our housekeeper’s real name to another common name in Botswana.