HIV/Aids: In the Blood
by Rhidian Brook
Nicola, Gabriel and Agnes Brook and friends at Kithituni Salvation Army, Kenya
IN December 2004 I received an email from a friend who worked for Newscorp. Would I talk to The Salvation Army about writing a book documenting the work they were doing in response to HIV/Aids around the world? I nearly binned the email. I was too busy and knew next to nothing about the subject. But I made the mistake of mentioning it to my wife who suggested I follow it up; a few days later I was talking to Dr Ian Campbell, The Salvation Army’s International Health Programme Consultant. The indefatigable Australian had just stepped off a plane.
‘What will this entail?’ I asked.
‘It’ll mean fully immersing yourself in the life of a community affected by HIV/Aids.’
I said I knew nothing about HIV/Aids.
Dr Campbell insisted that my ignorance would prove an asset. There were enough experts already out there. ‘Go expecting to learn and you will find the story,’ he told me.
‘How long will it take?’
‘About a year.’
‘What about my family, my wife and two children?’
‘Take them with you.’
A year later, I did take my family with me on a nine-month journey that would take us to 11 countries in three continents – into the heart of the Aids pandemic. Ian Campbell told us we were going on a faith adventure. It was to prove the greatest adventure of our lives.
We started in Kenya, in the small town of Kithituni, two hours south-east of Nairobi. The Salvation Army’s regional team had pioneered a communal response to HIV/Aids there and it was a fitting place for a green family to start: a strong, friendly community that was raw enough for us to experience life as it was being lived in many towns throughout Africa.
|A sex worker in Satara, India|
|Rhidian Brook’s feet, swollen and bruised after a week of walking along the dirt roads of Kenya|
|‘Last Supper in Tokyo’ – the Brook family enjoys the last meal of the life-changing journey before flying home|
It was deep-end education. We were thrown straight into the work, walking the red-dust road for hours with a group of locals, usually to visit someone who was sick from an Aids-related illness. In the first week I went to two funerals – both for men in their 30s with large families. I took my son Gabriel to the second funeral. His home schooling was developing an unusual syllabus – English and maths in the morning; Aids funeral in the afternoon.
At first, all this walking seemed a profligate use of manpower and time. We kept asking ourselves: ‘Is this small band of local people the answer to the world’s greatest health issue?’ But after a few weeks we began to see how it worked. The response wasn’t based on having money or drugs (two things they didn’t have a great deal of), it was about the restoring of fragmented relationships through small acts of kindness, making little connections, serving one another.
Aids holds up a mirror to societies and cultures; to churches and businesses and governments; to husbands and wives. As we travelled on we began to see how the disease acted as a magnifier of a country’s existing ills: the rape victims of genocide in Rwanda; child-headed families in South Africa; drug trafficking in Mizoram; governmental denial in China. In India – the new front line in the fight against Aids – an epidemic of prostitution was the engine driving the spread of the disease.
It was inside a brothel in Mumbai that I saw something I won’t forget: a young boy, no older than my son, sitting outside his mother’s room while she serviced a client. I had read Salvation Army Founder William Booth’s book In Darkest England. In his description of the children of prostitutes in Victorian London’s East End he could have been writing about the brothels in India where ‘thousands of these poor wretches are ... not so much born into this world but damned into it ... The bastard of a harlot, born in a brothel, suckled on gin, and familiar ... with all the bestialities of debauch, violated before she is 12, and driven out into the streets by her mother a year or two later, what chance is there for such a girl in this world?’
The answer to that question lies in part in the hands of all the people we met who were doing exactly what Booth and his soldiers had done more than 100 years ago, stepping into the very places most people refused to go. HIV/Aids would surely have been a whole chapter in Booth’s book were he writing it today and it would have been intriguing to see what he’d have proposed as a remedy. My guess is he’d have been quick to see how the disease goes deep to the root of man’s condition, his need for intimacy and love; his capacity to abuse and wreck it. And I feel sure he’d have proposed something akin to the work we were witnessing wherever we went: an unjudgmental, compassionate response underpinned by a fundamental belief in a human being’s capacity for change through the power of God’s love.
We were to see the fruit of this ‘love in action’ wherever we went: the widow buying a cow to produce milk for orphans; 30 HIV-positive people selling things they’d made and pooling their resources to support one another; a man who, through a small loan, had bought pigs which provided him with a livelihood and the will to live and who had seen the return of his son; the restoring of fragmented relationships with four teenage orphans forming a dance troupe; the reformed sex worker who helped a Salvation Army officer reach the very people he needed to help.
I can’t pretend: the world we saw on this journey really was in terrible shape. But the further we travelled the more we saw how the hidden, unsung acts of neighbours in forgotten communities seemed to be making the difference between hope and despair – between living and dying. Whenever a situation seemed close to overwhelming we would encounter stories of amazing grace, and hope; small stories that slowly accumulated into being The Big Story.
Rhidian Brook’s account of his journey, More than Eyes Can See, is to be published by Marion Boyars in 2007. You can also listen to his broadcasts on the journey for the BBC World Service at: www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice as part of The World Today
See more pictures in All the World's centrefold (Adobe PDF)
Rhidian Brook is an award-winning novelist, screen and short story writer. He has written articles on faith, travel and education for many newspapers and is a regular contributor to Radio 4's ‘Thought for the Day’ on the Today programme. Rhidian is married to Nicola. They live in London with their two children, Gabriel and Agnes.