Elizabeth Geitz, an Episcopal priest and author of six books, has received praise from a broad range of people, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Sister Helen Prejean, for her ability to combine spirituality and matters of social justice. Her newest book, I Am That Child, is a riveting memoir of her journey to Cameroon’s Good Shepherd Home for Children, which serves those orphaned by the AIDS pandemic. Geitz, who lives on Stony Brook Farm in the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania, talks with us about that experience.
You went to a remote village in West Africa to work with an orphanage in Cameroon. What inspired that trip?
Seven years ago my family began sponsoring a 6-year-old boy in the [orphanage] named Nafi Ndika. I had been communicating with him once a year and took a real interest in his life, his background, and his country. When I was given a sabbatical, I literally took a leap of faith and traveled to see him. I had never been to a developing country before, so it was quite a challenge for me.
Tell me about Sister Jane Mankaa, who is considered by many to be the Mother Teresa of Africa.
One day Sister Jane was walking down the streets of Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, when a young child lifted his arms to her, begging her to save his life. She asked him where he lived, and he told her the streets were his home. She went back the next day and there were 10 more children, all orphaned from the AIDS pandemic. She knew then that her life’s work was to care for these forgotten children who are the face of AIDS in Africa today. With a dream in her heart, a vision in her head, and $25 in her pocket, Sister Jane flew to America to learn how to establish an orphanage and an order of nuns to run it. Today, 140 children call her “Mama” in a home where all their food, shelter, health needs, and school fees are paid and where, most importantly, they are loved. Ten years after she established the home, it is 50% self-sustaining, with the largest chicken farm in the area, a bakery that produces 3,000 loaves of bread per day, a piggery, and three vegetable farms.
Your trip must have given you opportunity to consider how global poverty affects the transmission of HIV.
The average living wage in Cameroon is less than $1 a day. When that is the reality, there is little energy left to focus on anything other than survival. When survival is the focus, there is little incentive to practice safe sex to prevent the transmission of an invisible virus. While some people are educated in Cameroon about how HIV is transmitted and are motivated to take preventative measures, they have limited access to condoms and little means to purchase them. Lack of transportation infrastructure, along with inadequate health care and government programs, are all factors.
How does sexism impact HIV in Africa?
Sexism is a major factor in the propagation of HIV. Early and forceful marriages, polygamy, lack of decision-making power by women, widow cleansing [the practice of forcing a widow into sex or marriage with a relative of her dead husband in order to exorcise his spirit], neglect and abandonment of wives, tolerating male promiscuity, and condoning actions of rape all contribute to the spread of HIV. Women have little say over whether their partners use protection. A recent study in Africa has shown that forced sexual activity with drunken husbands was most often cited by women as times they tg felt they had been exposed to the virus, as many reported believing that their husbands had more than one sexual partner, either through polygamy or infidelity.
(left: life at the Good Shepherd Home for Children)What can people learn from your experience?
Too often people in developing countries are nameless faces, strangers we will never meet or know. It is easy then to depersonalize issues like global poverty and AIDS. My takeaway is that behind every statistic is a human being with the same feelings, needs, desires, and concerns that I have. We truly are all one, and we need to begin living that way.You’re an Episcopal priest. Was this trip part of your ministry?
Oh, yes, this was and is definitely part of my ministry. I worked in inner-city Trenton, N.J., for five years with women on welfare in the late 1980s, and this trip 25 years later was a continuation of that call. It strengthened my faith to be with Sister Jane and her children. They are more spiritual and faith-filled than any people I have ever been around. In the midst of abject poverty they are grateful for what they do have. They praise God for everything. I have never seen anything like it.I hear you have a fan in Desmond Tutu.
Now, that question makes me smile. “Fan” might be overstating it, but he did write a ringing endorsement of my book Gender and the Nicene Creed
, about feminism and Christianity. I had the pleasure of hosting him as a speaker for a clergy conference. He unexpectedly asked me to drive him to a luncheon. I was so flustered I proceeded to get lost in downtown Trenton! He laughed and slapped his knee, while I on the other hand was about to die of embarrassment. To say he is unforgettable is an understatement. Talk about faith in the midst of incredible adversity.A big topic recently has been the dangers of criminalization of HIV.
The criminalization of HIV is an issue of growing and significant concern throughout Africa that is damaging to those with AIDS and exacerbates the spread of HIV. There is such a law on the books in Cameroon, but it is unclear whether or not it has ever been enacted. In a related area, there is a regularly enforced law in Cameroon against same-sex sexual activity. Suspected homosexual men are arrested, beaten, and jailed. Women suspected of being lesbians suffer violence in their families, are forced to leave home, or their children are taken away from them. As a result, people who think they might have HIV refuse to get tested for fear that they will be accused of being homosexual and thrown in jail. This is a major factor in the spread of HIV.You’ve had a chance to really explore solidarity with people in developing countries. Did that impact how you deal with people back home?
My time in Cameroon at the orphanage has impacted almost everything I do. I have had many more honest discussions with people of color about the role of racism in America today and have a different understanding of what it means to work in a partnership, in solidarity with those whose culture and reference point are very different from my own. Just as Westerners do not have the answers for people in developing countries, suburban or city people in the U.S. don’t have the answers for our brothers and sisters in the inner city. In each case, our role is to listen and learn from the people who are experts on their own lives.What was your most surprising experience in Cameroon?
As odd as it sounds, my most surprising experience was the fact that we were the only white people in sight. For the first time in my life, I experienced what it is like to be surrounded by people of a different race. Very few tourists travel to Cameroon, which I had not realized. One boy I met was scared to speak to me because he had never seen a white person before.There are 300,000 orphans in Cameroon alone. What is their understanding of HIV/AIDS?
The majority of the 140 children in the Good Shepherd Home lost one or both parents to AIDS. They are well aware of how their parents died, although they do not discuss it because there is such a taboo and stigma associated with the disease. Many Cameroonians still believe AIDS is caused by witchcraft and that there is a spell on the children, even though very few of them are HIV-positive themselves. The children, on the other hand, are educated in how HIV/AIDS is contracted and how to prevent it.What do you most want readers to take away from your book?
I most hope that the face of AIDS in Africa today—the estimated 15.7 million orphaned children left behind—will have a name and a personal story that touches readers, one human being to another. I share 14 different ways readers can…join the journey with me. There is no substitute for it.