To mark International AIDS Day 2005, Life presents a powerful and intimate insight into the work of a hospice in Zambia, a country on the front line in the world fight against HIV/AIDS. This is a country where one in five of the population are HIV-positive; most are under 40 years old. All of the eleven million population has been touched by HIV/AIDS in some way.
The Mother of Mercy Hospice on the edge of the capital, Lusaka, was the first of its kind in Zambia. It has just 22 beds and was founded by an inspiring woman of extraordinary courage, a Polish nun called Sister Leonia. The film follows the work of the staff and volunteers both at the hospice and in the local villages and communities. The courage of patients, the resilience and despair of the staff and the dignity of how they all deal with the almost daily ritual of death makes this film an extraordinary account of the human face of AIDS in modern Africa.
The Mother of Mercy Hospice on the edge of the capital, Lusaka, was the first of its kind in Zambia. It has just 22 beds and was founded by an inspiring woman of extraordinary courage, a Polish nun called Sister Leonia.
‘Our idea was just to build a simple shelter so people can die with dignity,’ says Sister Leonia. ‘It’s not just about giving medication or an injection of morphine. You have to stay there to share the darkness, share all the doubts to share the worries and joys of our sick brothers and sisters.’
Two hundred people a day in Zambia die from HIV/AIDS. People are lucky to celebrate their thirty-sixth birthday. Zambia is one of the worst African countries affected, but by no means the only one. Controlling HIV/AIDS is one of the biggest challenges world health experts face. That’s why all the member countries of the United Nations have pledged to ‘reverse’ the spread of the disease as one of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals – a global ambition the international community hopes to achieve by 2015.
The Hospice clinical officer Cromwell Sialonga deals with death almost every day. ‘Last week we had seven, that’s seven deaths last week, that’s really draining, emotionally draining because they should not happen like that,’ he says. Poverty is part of the problem, because many patients are weakened by malnutrition.
‘We are dealing with the very poor,’ says Cromwell. ‘Currently HIV drugs are very expensive for Zambians, but if they were made cheaper they would still need to get enough food to help themselves.’
New patient John Mukuka is in a bad way. He has all the symptoms of TB, the main cause of death for people with HIV in Zambia. Most of his close family suffered from TB, many died. But he’s worse because of lack of nutritious food.
As Cromwell explains: ‘When you keep the patient for one or two months you come to discover it’s all a result of hunger. When we actually feed them up that tends to help, so really the care they receive in the hospice setting tends to help to pull them through.’
A lot of care work also goes on outside the Hospice – some people are too ill to make the journey themselves. There are about five hundred people based in local compounds or villages who get regular visits from Sister Leonia. Sister Leonia visits three-year-old Christine, who is very sick. ‘In these eleven years I have seen a lot of babies dying. It’s very sad, no one should suffer like that,’ she says.
Christine’s mother comes to the hospice to be with her, but in a few days she dies. Sister Leonia explains how she copes: ‘I knew we would lose Christine. Although there was a bit of hope that she would pick up again she didn’t. What, how I deal with such thing? I put everything before God and leaving it with him.’
But sometimes there is good news. A baby boy whose parents have died of AIDS proves to be HIV-negative. And John Mukuka is soon sufficiently well to go home. The hospice founded by Sister Leonia plays a small but significant role in the local battle against HIV. As she says: ‘We have to be here. Ours is on the frontline. Doing whatever is possible to live here without hope – there’s always hope, though sometime it’s hidden somewhere.’
The Network of Zambian People Living with HIV/AIDS (NZP+) is a Zambian NGO which aims to improve the quality of life of People with HIV/AIDS through the formation and strengthening of support groups.
The International HIV/AIDS Alliance supports community action on AIDS in developing countries including Zambia.
For general information on Zambia, try Zambia Online.
One of the best sources of up-to-date information on HIV/AIDS is the US-based Aegis website. The UNAIDS website is also a very good resource: read the UNAIDS pages on Zambia, and the recently published UNAIDS/WHO AIDS Epidemic Update 2004.
In 2000, the Panos Institute published a report on poor countries’ access to HIV/AIDS drugs: ‘Beyond Our Means? The cost of treating HIV/AIDS in the developing world’. An Acrobat version of the complete report can be downloaded from here.
One World OnLine provides an AIDS Channel, with links and resources.
Health Action International (HAI) is a non-profit, global network of health, development, consumer and other public interest groups in more than 70 countries working for a more rational use of medicinal drugs. Read HAI’s pages on Increasing Access to Essential Drugs in a Globalised Economy. The Consumer Project on Technology (created by Ralph Nader) has a programme on Access to HIV/AIDS Medicines, with many online reports and links to other sites.
Target 7 of the Millennium Development Goals is to have begun to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS by 2015.
Music in this programme includes ‘Esashi Oiwake’ from the album The Gate by Joji Hirota of Real World Records.
Previous Life programmes dealing with HIV/AIDS include: Crisis Control – Stemming the Spread of HIV/AIDS, Brazil – Winning against AIDS, Cheated of Childhood (about Russia), Patents and Patients (India), and The Cost of Living (Thailand and South Africa).