Wednesday, 20 May 2009

A tragedy beyond comprehension

A banner proclaiming hope, compassion and solidarity in a Church in Swaziland (Photograph: Linda Chambers/USPG Ireland)

Patrick Comerford

I was in Kilkenny twice last week for meetings in the Bishop’s House. Two visits to Kilkenny is bliss, three so far this year is undescribable bliss – trying to peel me out of Ireland’s most beautiful city is more difficult to describe.

At the end of the week, I was at a meeting to discuss Continuing Ministerial Education in the Dioceses of Cashel and Ossory, with imaginative programmes being put forward by the Dean of Leighlin, the Very Revd Gordon Wynne.

Earlier in the week, the directors of USPG Ireland – Anglicans in World Mission met in the same room to plan future Irish strategy for the United Society for the propagation of the Gospel (USPG) one of the oldest mission agencies in the Anglican Communion.

The meeting ended with a briefing by Jan de Bruijn and Linda Chambers on the work of USPG in Swaziland, a land-locked country in Southern Africa that is bordered to the north, south, and west by South Africa, and to the east by Mozambique.

Swaziland became a British protectorate at the end of the Second Boer War, and became an independent kingdom in 1968, when the Anglican Diocese of Swaziland was first established.

The economy of Swaziland is dominated by services industry, agriculture and subsistence farming, but growth has been hampered by the effects of HIV and AIDS, which – at 38 per cent – has highest prevalence in the world.

Swaziland is less than one-fifth the size of Ireland with 17,600 sq km (6,700 sq m), and has a population of a little over 1.1 million.

Jan and Linda gave a very moving account of life in Swaziland, where HIV/AIDS affects the life of every parish, where people are trying to live positively and fight stigmatisation.

The Swazi “tragedy” means 20,000 people are dying of AIDS-related illnesses every year in Swaziland. Life-expectancy is expected to drop from 62 to just 27 by next year. The most productive section of society – those aged around 30 – have effectively been wiped out, wrecking the country, which has already been crippled by drought and economic disintegration.

The UN recently declared that Swaziland has surpassed Botswana and is now the country with the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence in the world. Of Swaziland’s one million people, 500,000 are under 15 years of age. Of the remaining half million, 200,000 are HIV infected.

The chance of a 15-year-old reaching the age of 35 is only 10 per cent. More than 5,500 homes or 15 per cent of households are now headed by an orphan child – with an average age of 11 – according to Linda and Jan.

The crisis in Swaziland, caused by HIV/AIDS and years of drought, is now “beyond comprehension,” according to the Anglican Church there. Life expectancy has been halved, an entire generation of orphans is growing up and as the Swazi government remains inactive the Church has become the only hope for many of the people.

According to Linda and Jan, 70 per cent of people in Swaziland live below the poverty line, currently set at $8.50 a month.

The Anglican Church of Swaziland – a diocese of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa – has a programme to combat HIV/AIDS but desperately needs support. The Diocese of Swaziland recently issued a mission statement on its strategy, highlighting poverty and the spread of HIV/AIDS as inseparable issues, and pointing out that the care of the sick and their families must be implemented within a much wider task of pastoral care.

Earlier this month, Veronica Maziya of the Anglican Diocese of Swaziland presented statistics and eyewitness accounts of the devastation facing her country.

“The situation is amplified by the fact that there are only 2,000 hospital beds in the country,” she continued. “And as there is no social welfare system, very few can afford treatment.”

Ms Maziya told the Anglican Communion news Service (ACNS) of the devastation, “grief and agony” that HIV/AIDS is causing in Swaziland and how the Anglican Church is attempting to relieve its suffering. She called on the Anglican Communion to pray for the efforts of the Anglican Church to bring the crisis to an end. “The situation is a disaster for Swaziland,” she said. “HIV has destroyed our youth and the future. We have been left with an orphaned country. We face a tragedy beyond comprehension.”

Patrick Comerford with Bishop Michael Burrows of Cashel and Ossory and Bishop Michael Doe, General Secretary of USPG, in Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny, last week (Photograph: Linda Chambers/USPG Ireland)

USPG Ireland is at: http://www.uspg.org.uk/article.php?article_id=199