ON SABBATICAL: Evading death’s fatal gaze in the Land of a Pandemic

Inside this compound are a number of other buildings:  one that houses the offices of the Diocesan Commission of Justice and Peace, another hall that  we would call a seminar house where various diocesan and local meetings are held, the hospice where persons with AIDS are provided care and anti-retoviral (ARV) medication, a dormitory for the personnel of the hospice and a parish church.

Behind the parish church, barely a hundred meters away is a makeshift graveyard. I went to visit it Wednesday, July 12 at noontime.  Because it is winter in South Africa, one can stand under the midday sun and be dressed in thick clothes.

This place is not meant to be a cemetery.  But there are dead bodies that desperately need a place where they can be laid to rest.  There are many reasons why those who were buried in this makeshift graveyard cannot be buried elsewhere: their homes are far away from here, the nearby cemeteries would not take them in and, in a number of cases, because the dead died of illnesses owing to AIDS complications.

This is a cemetery where most of those buried died of illnesses related to HIV-AIDS.  I was told earlier that since it opened in November 2004, there have been 660 persons with AIDS admitted at the hospice. Of these, 260 have died; a number were children.

At first sight, the graveyard reminded me of many cemeteries in faraway places in rural Mindanao. Tall grasses have grown to hide many of the graves.  And most of the graves that one can see are but mounds of earth; very rarely can one see cemented tombs.  But the similarities end there.  

This is especially true when one looks at the graveyard of the children buried here. In most cases, the adult graves are separated from those of the children. At the center of the cemetery is a long row of children's graves. Since most of those who died were not Christians, one does not see many crosses at the head of the graves.  And very few had the names of the dead.

But what was most striking was that stuck into the mounds of earth were the children's milk bottles (even Coca-Cola bottles), dolls, toy trucks, teddy bears and other toys.  In some cases plastic tubs used for the babies' bath were placed on top of the grave. Naturally, there were many plastic flowers.  

Death's presence here is most palpable.  One is almost powerless to evade Death's fatal gaze as one realizes the power of its tight embrace. In the stillness of the whole scene, one recognizes life's paradoxes.  

I stood there for a long time gazing at the children's graves. In the cold of the African winter, even if its was a sunny mid-day, I shivered.  A wind blew and the tall grasses danced in the sun and I shuddered.  I thought I would cry, but not a tear was shed.

I found myself deadened by the tragedy even as I asked myself:  Did I psyche myself up to a level of deadening my senses so that I would not be too overpowered by the concrete images of this pandemic?

In a little while, I made a hasty exit from the graveyard and retreated to a spot at the back of the church where one can sit under the shade of a big tree.  And I collected my thoughts and feelings.  

The stillness was soothing and yet I was most aware of a lot of questions storming my mind and emotions grappling with meanings in my heart.

That evening, Kevin addressed a group of 14 Irish young men and women who had come to South Africa for the SERVE journey.  Kevin invited me to join them and we all listened to his power point presentation as to what the Diocese is doing to respond to the pandemic. At the very start of this presentation, he immediately pointed to us the extent of this pandemic:

There are 6.2 million South Africans infected by HIV-AIDS.  (I had checked the official figures from ASSA, their equivalent of our Bureau of Census and Statistics) and it indicated that as of July 1, 2002, there were 6,461,372 Africans with HIV-AIDS.  If one wants to know what is the estimate for 2006, one only has to multiply this number with 5% and that  figure would be close to 7 million South Africans today. With a total population of roughly 50 million, that means roughly 14% have AIDS. Of the 6.5 million with AIDS in 2002, 3,199,493 are child-bearing women, and 205,134 are children.)

More statistics: 200,000 South Africans die of AIDS complications every year, there are 1,500 new infections every day, 1.2 million children are made orphans because of AIDS, this number will double in 2010 (the year South Africa will host the World Cup), 600 children die of AIDS every day and in 2005 there were 990,000 children who lost their mother to AIDS.

I watched the faces of the Irish youth as Kevin flashed these numbers of the screen along with slides of persons with AIDS who have died in the hospice and a nearby clinic (ironically located in a place called Freedom Park). They were gripped by the numbers and images; they hardly made any noise. Neither did they look away even as I saw that some of them were teary-eyed.  We were all overpowered by the information that was being shared; perhaps, we were too shocked to utter a word.

Wednesday was a long and weary day.  After Kevin's talk, I excused myself and walked to the nearby monastery.

It was 9:30 in the evening and the cold penetrated my bones. I stopped and looked at the sky and remembered the starry nights in Kulaman (Sultan Kudarat).  In that cloudless, dark African sky, millions of stars blazed.

I stood on that sacred spot in South Africa and not just for a moment.  And I thought:  there are souls out there.

They are out there embracing the brightness of those stars.

They have finally evaded Death's lethal gaze.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar of Davao City,  former head o f the Redemptorist Itinerant Mission Team and author of several books, including “To be poor and obscure,” and “Mystic Wanderers in the Land of Perpetual Departures,” is on a year-long sabbatical since June 30. He wrote this piece on July 17).