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Report from Malawi: Moderator Visits Ekwendeni Hospital and Families Affected by HIV/AIDS


Jacklyn with Rev. Drs. Rick Fee and John Vissers.

The moderator prayed with Jacklyn at her home on Tuesday.

Jacklyn is an AIDS-stricken woman, living in a remote village near Mzuzu, in northern Malawi. She is the mother of two: a six-year-old boy and a two-and-a-half year old girl who has carried the HIV virus from birth.

Jacklyn is one of many AIDS mothers visited regularly by staff at the Ekwendeni Hospital, a mission of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian’s Synod of Livingstonia.

Rev. Dr. John Vissers, moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada’s 138th General Assembly, is visiting Malawi, along with his wife Lynn, Rev. Dr. Rick Fee, general secretary of the Life and Mission Agency, and Debbie Burns, a PCC missionary based in Blantyre, Malawi, where her husband is associate minister at St. James Church.

The moderator began the day at the hospital, meeting with senior staff and board members. He was then given a tour by hospital matron Esther Kawerama. The hospital is mandated by the Malawi government to serve a catchment of over 600 square kilometres, which includes over 200 remote villages.

The PCC, through International Ministries and Presbyterian World Service and Development, has supported the world-renowned hospital for many years.

Along with providing the usual services, the hospital specializes in many needs that are unique to Malawi. The national average for HIV is 12 per cent. Through vigorous programming, the Ekwendeni catchment’s rate is eight per cent.

One of the programs run by the hospital is geared toward reducing the transference of HIV from a pregnant mother to her child. It is manageable through anti-retroviral drugs but requires the active participation of both parents.

The moderator and general secretary met some of the women who have participated in the hospital mother and child program. While all the mom’s are HIV carriers, none of their babies have the virus.

Of the many heroes found at Ekwendeni, one who has taken the mother and child program as her personal mission is a woman named Maria. Maria is an HIV carrier and a mother. Though she is strictly a volunteer at the hospital, she is known lovingly as Dr. Maria.

Speaking from her own experiences, she has counselled many women over the years to take control of their own situation, to work with their husbands, who must become active participants in the program, and regularly take the drugs needed to suppress the HIV during the pregnancy and birth.

AIDS prevention is a mission in Maria’s life. Since she is herself a carrier, her body does collapse occasionally. She jokingly explained to the moderator that she has nearly died a few times, but her work at Ekwendeni is not finished.

She led the visit to Jacklyn’s home. Maria visits her as often as she can, despite her remote location. The moderator’s entourage travelled there in very good SUVs, over unkempt, dusty, dirt-packed roads for about hour. Maria has been known to travel the same distance on foot to visit Jacklyn and others.

Jacklyn looked gaunt and weak but to Maria’s eyes through regular feedings and drugs, Jacklyn can gain the strength to continue her daily life.

Jacklyn is one of many such HIV carriers who are visited regularly by Maria and others from Ekwendeni Hospital. According to Maria all they need is steady encouragement. The drugs make them light-headed and weak, but that can be countered by regular feedings.

The moderator also visited an orphan care centre, where kindergarten and primary school children sang to him and recited prayers.

He also visited a home where five children have been raising themselves. Their father left many years ago and their mother died of AIDS a few years ago. The eldest child was 15 at the time. The PCC, through PWS&D, has directly impacted these children by providing them a new home and giving them opportunities to get an education.

The child-led home, and the orphan care centre, are also programs run by the Ekwendeni Hospital.

Though this is the Visser’s first visit to Malawi, Rev. Dr. Rick Fee has worked in Africa since 1977 and first visited Ekwendeni in 1989, when the hospital was starting its AIDS programming.

Fee congratulated the staff for the work they have done. He told them he heard mention of the hospital several times at the most recent AIDS conference held in Washington, D.C., in July.

He said he remembered in 1989 there was a dark cloud over the hospital. The epidemic of HIV/AIDS was building and there was a general sense of doom looking at the future. He said he remembered many challenging years but his heart is lifted when he sees mother-child transference success rates of 96 per cent. He told the staff and board members of Ekwendeni Hospital that he recognizes these successes come through hard work and patience.

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Andrew Faiz is the Presbyterian Record's senior editor.

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