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Rwanda: Jesuit novices learn about AIDS ministry

Patrice Ndayisenga SJ

30 September 2013 - In July I paid a visit to the Jesuit novitiate in Cyangugu, Rwanda, just around the time the new novices were being welcomed and introduced to the history, life and works of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). The novice master asked me to present AJAN to the novices because, to borrow his words, “to know AJAN is to know the Society of Jesus in Africa”.

What fascinated me most about my encounter with the novices, old and new, were their questions, especially this one: why did the Society of Jesus choose AIDS ministry as a priority only in Africa; could it mean that AIDS is found only in Africa?

I harked back to the time of the inception of AJAN, in 2002, when AIDS visibly and obviously posed a lethal threat to sub-Saharan Africa. Today, the situation is vastly improved, but there is no doubt that Africa remains the region hardest hit by the disease. Statistics tell the story: in 2002, Africa accounted for 29.4 million out of a global tally of 42 million people living with AIDS worldwide. Today, an estimated 22.9 million people are living with HIV in the region - around two thirds of the global total. Complex issues of poverty and social justice exacerbate AIDS in Africa, among them the extent of universal access to treatment and inadequate healthcare systems in many countries. The destruction wrought by AIDS begs appalling questions about the very survival of the continent, questions that are largely unique to Africa. This is why the Society of Jesus is resolutely committed to allying with other institutions to search for adequate responses to face AIDS.

Other questions that cropped up were the inevitable one about AJAN’s take on condom use – which echoes the stand of the Catholic Church – and from where AJAN gets its motivation to care for people infected with HIV and affected by AIDS. These questions are really significant because the answers would seek to explain the very raison d’être of AJAN in the struggle against AIDS.

As we talked, I learned about the work of the novices in AIDS ministry. During weekly visits to hospital, and particularly during their ‘experiments’ (assignments that are part of the formation of the Jesuit novice), they accompany people who are living with HIV and also get involved in counselling those who go for an HIV test. They deserve lots of praise and, more importantly, adequate support to equip them with sufficient knowledge to bolster their rather impressive services.

When I visited the novices, I was preparing to leave AJAN for theology studies. My brief time with them proved to be a great opportunity to wind up my two-year experience in AIDS ministry. I thank each and all of the novices for making ours an enriching encounter worth sharing.