Tuesday, September 12, 2006

TRAVEL BLOG Mzuzu, Malawi


We're staying at the CitiHope Malawi Mission Center in Mzuzu. Our internet connection has been down for 2 days. Also no hot water, several power surges, and a VCR that does not work. But I like this place. Clean, newly renovated rooms, office areas, kitchen and 2 baths. A wonderful thatched roof hut in the back yard. Secure brick fence around the property. And a property staff of three: a day watchman, a night watchman and a cook/housecleaner.

Back online after launching our PACCT program on Monday. Originally designed for 25 pastors, we have 45 pastors and NGO reps here for three days, fully engaged in the workshop on how to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS in their churches through morinformed preaching and teachirelevant education, overcoming denial and stigma, and behavior change. Two people living with HIV told us their story which put all things in perspective. I was particularly moved by Lillian, whose husband died 10 years ago, and who now has 13 kids and step kids under her care. She's on first line ARV drugs (now available in Malawi) which makes AIDS a chronical but managable disease for those who can access treatment. Part of our mission is to make sure more women and children living with HIV get the treatment they need.

I shared my own story of getting involved in AIDS work this morning in the first session. Twenty five years ago, patient zero was diagnosed. A hand full of cases of a "strange new cancer" surfaced from 1981-1983, and soon grew to 100,000 cases. What was initially called GRIDS--Gay-Related Immuno-Defieciency Syndrome--became known worldwide as AIDS. I was a pastor back then, and my church in San Francisco had AIDS. I shared some of the stories of those who came to my church and mission center for help and hope. And how I became an AIDS chaplain at San Francisco General Hospital. Now, 25 years later, there are 70 million infected world-wide, and 20 million deaths. How strange to find myself back in AIDS ministry after leaving San Francisco for New Jersey 13 years ago.

In Malawi, population 12 million, WHO statistics state that HIV infects 14.4% of the people and accounts for 85,000 deaths per year, leaving over 800,000 AIDS orphans in need of food and medicine. The medical professionals we work with in country estimate that between 25-33% of all Malawans are infected with HIV and need to be tested or in treatment. Which is of course, why we're involved in mission in Malawi.

Here in Mzuzu, the third largest city in Malawi and capital of the Northern Region, CitiHope works in partnership with the Presbyterian Synod of Livingstonia (David Livingstone's legacy) and supports 37 community organizations caring for those in need of food and medicine, help and hope. Tomorrow we will visit 2 AIDS orphanage centers, a school for the blind, and medical clinics. Tomorrow we will meet with several doctors and village chiefs, monitoring the situation and finding out what else we can do to help.

But for now, its time for bed; tomorrow is just a few hours away.