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.