At one with AIDS

At one with AIDS

‘They are the ones who count in my eyes. They are wonderfully heroic people.’ Fr. Michael Kelly, an Irish Jesuit and an internationally renowned expert on AIDS, is full of admiration for people infected by HIV. Based in Zambia, he travels the

world to lobby for their rights, focusing his efforts on addressing AIDS through education.

As a professor of education, Fr Kelly realized the effect HIV and AIDS was having on the goal of universal primary education in Zambia. He followed up on this insight by studying the question deeply. He believes there must be more than just one response and calls for an integral approach involving education, the churches and issues of justice. ‘From about 1990, I included HIV and AIDS in (my course on education), and the attention given to the epidemic increased year by year until my retirement in 2001.’
His contributions have been honoured time and again and he recently received an award from the Forum for African Women Educationalists in Zambia (FAWEZA) for outstanding contributions to the promotion of girls’ education in Zambia.

‘The body of Christ has AIDS’ is the conviction Fr Kelly puts to us, and ‘if the body of Christ has AIDS, then we all have AIDS.’ HIV/AIDS is our personal problem and responsibility, he says, and not the problem of other people ‘out there.’ Admitting this is crucial to overcome rampant stigma and discrimination.

Poverty and other social evils fuel the pandemic. Poor people are at greater risk of succumbing to HIV and AIDS. It is a disease that makes the poor poorer. And ‘AIDS is increasingly becoming a disease with the face of a woman or girl.’ Fr Kelly says we need hope and the Church cannot stand apart. ‘Only a Church which admits that she has AIDS can speak effectively and provide hope for a world with AIDS.’

‘It is someone else’s problem’ could well be one of the most deeply engrained mindsets about HIV/AIDS. And on the international level it is labeled as a problem of the world’s poorest regions. This habit we have of passing on responsibility exposes our failure to understand the demands of justice. Fr Kelly speaks of the ‘strong synergy between AIDS and four basic root causes: a) poverty; b) gender disparities and power structures; c) stigma and discrimination; and d) exploitative global economic structures and practices.’

So it is imperative that HIV prevention efforts ‘be grounded in the broader struggle for social and economic rights for the poor.’ Abusive relationships also come under the spotlight. There must be a ‘just sexuality’ to combat the sexual behaviour which victimises girls and women.

Fr Kelly pays tribute to the courage and spirit of a Zambian AIDS activist, one of the many people with the virus who have inspired his work. Brigitte Syamalevwe was diagnosed with HIV about 1992 and from then on spoke openly about her status, a powerful and internationally acclaimed advocate and speaker who, as a fluent speaker of English and French, was able to reach audiences all over Africa.

She refused to take expensive ARVs, even though donors were willing to pay for them, because they were not available for her fellow-Zambians. Losing her husband to AIDS in October 2002, she almost immediately resumed her involvement with infected families near Ndola to ensure they had ploughed their fields in preparation for the oncoming rainy season and that they had the necessary seed and other inputs.

She went to London in mid-November when her youngest and most loved son was dangerously ill of cancer. In London, she heard about his death on the same evening that she addressed the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR). She also gave a long BBC interview on the same day. She would not allow her grief to interrupt what the young man had told her was her God-given mission – to speak fearlessly against the disease and to continue doing so even if she received bad news about him – and then she returned to Zambia for his funeral.

Finally in February 2003, so overwhelmed by grief and weariness that she did not send to collect the ARVs I had bought for her, she let her great spirit soar to God in a quiet and peaceful death.

It is impossible not to be inspired by a great woman like this, and she is representative of many great women in Zambia and throughout Africa and of many who carry the virus. I pray that the day will come when we will move towards canonizing the likes of Brigitte, to represent African women and to represent the wonderful people living with HIV.

This article is a summary of a description of Fr Michael Kelly’s work and is published by JCTR, the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection, in Zambia. See

21 June 2006

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