Since coming back from the UK at the end of July, I (David) have been much more involved with Lifestitches, a project that helps economically empower and provide practical skills to mothers who are unfortunate enough to be living with HIV. The Lifestitches project began in 2001 when a pediatric doctor from the States got involved supporting a group of HIV+ mothers who met under a mango tree at the Arua government hospital.
The ladies have many tragic stories. One of the Lifestitches’ ladies called Angela, is a 45-year old woman. Through the project, she hopes to set up as a tailor in her village, which she believes will allow her to earn a small income to help her with basic needs at home like buying food for some of her 10 children still living with her. She had 15, but 5 others died. 4 of the kids are in school, although she never made it to school herself, so at Lifestitches, she is also learning to write her name in the dirt under the shade of a mango tree.
Culturally, Lugbara girls can marry early and Angela was around 13 when she married her husband. Her husband is now dead after contracting HIV/AIDS, most likely picked up when he was in the capital, Kampala for long periods earning some money by doing manual labour. Although the husband and his relatives knew he was HIV+, it was never mentioned to Angela herself until after her husband died. She was angry at her husband, but could do nothing about it since he had already died having passed on his illness to her.
Thankfully, Lifestitches is providing some hope and support for Angela in the struggle of daily life, but sadly, this is only one of the many stories of unjust and unnecessary suffering surrounding us.
However, for Angela and so many others like her, the spiritual realm is a crucial component that gives them hope and thankfully so. Many of the mothers are Catholic and wear long beaded chains with a metal or plastic cross hanging on their chests.
In the African mindset, there is no discussion that there is a spiritual dimension to life. In Uganda, 85% of the population claim to be Christian and there are high proportions of believers all over sub-Saharan Africa. I have heard people say that “If God is not real, we have nothing”. Belief provides hope and an explanation for the incomprehensible.
I have only ever met one atheist in Africa…when I was buying a Bible in a bookstore in Kenya! The spiritual realm is very real to Africans and is intimately connected with everyday life. In the African Traditional Religion, which is still important within the culture, spirits inhabit nature and especially lakes and forests. Witchdoctors are still visited for healing. Curses cause sickness and death. Every death has a spiritual explanation and physical life whether it is the rainfall or an accident is connected with what happens in the spirit-world.
The Bible says that it is more difficult for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich person to know God. Unlike in Africa, in the West, our ‘stuff’ gets in the way of our spirituality. It seems that because we have all that we need and so much more, we don’t think we need God or anyone else, for that matter. We can solve all our problems using our own ingenuity, creativity and intelligence. We don’t need to believe in a higher power having an influence and impacting our lives in the here and now.
One danger in this (non)-belief comes across in pride and all the too common judgemental attitude we have in the West towards Africa which suggests that Africans must be less developed (an attitude which I am not immune too as well). The narrative is that as more people are educated and learn modern ways, religion will become less important. 'Religion is the opiate for the (uneducated) masses'. However, despite the 'advanced' state of the 'developed' nations, there is increasing moral confusion in the West, the increasing problems of depression and loneliness, environmental problems, addictions, relationship breakdown and social problems.
Despite her simplicity, or because of it, unschooled Angela challenges our educated beliefs. She challenges us through her dignified suffering despite the incredible difficulties of her life. She challenges me specifically because despite all my ‘stuff’ to help me enjoy life and be comfortable, she has learned secrets to dealing with difficulties that I will never comprehend. She can cope with whatever life throws at her. People get on with their lives, continuing with smiles on their faces and the infectious ability to laugh easily. In the West, where we may need counseling because our pet dog has died, Africans have a depth and strength that I can only dream of having. If that is what Angela's spiritual nature gives her, we have a lot of catching up to do in the West.
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