Nhlengelo—A Place of Hope
A multichurch humanitarian project brings relief and hope to those suffering from HIV and AIDS in a South African community.
BY SANDRA A. BLACKMER, news editor of Adventist World
illions of people dying worldwide every year as a result of AIDS; more than 12 million AIDS orphans in Africa alone; people living with the disease ostracized by their families and communities and eking out an existence in extreme poverty conditions. I’ve heard the statistics, read the stories, and lamented this devastating world situation with friends and colleagues countless times. But the reality of the human tragedy didn’t fully “hit” me until I visited South Africa with 20 educators, pastors, and administrators from the Chesapeake and Michigan conferences and the North American Division headquarters in the United States on a recent Hope for Humanity mission trip. I saw the faces of the people, sat in their homes, talked with them about the challenges they face—and my world changed.
|A caregiver who works with a Hope for Humanity-sponsored program in South Africa called Nhlengelo cares for an AIDS patient in the community of Dwarsloop. [Kurt Fattic]
Hope for Humanity (HFH)—the new name and face of the Adventist Church’s century-old fund-raising program called Ingathering—is the force behind millions of dollars collected annually by church members in North America to support humanitarian work in local communities and abroad. Almost $2.5 million was raised in 2005 alone. Headquartered at the North American Division (NAD) office in Silver Spring, Maryland, United States, and run by department director Maitland DiPinto, HFH spearheads humanitarian projects in countries such as South Africa, Nicaragua, and Bangladesh. These initiatives help people challenged by HIV and AIDS, illiteracy, limited medical care, and other social and health-related problems. The project we visited this past summer in South Africa is uniquely called Nhlengelo (pronounced ĕn-gay-low)—a Tsonga word meaning “standing together against an enemy.” In this case, the enemy is AIDS.
Nhlengelo is located in a small township called Dwarsloop, about 322 kilometers (200 miles) northeast of Johannesburg--the most populous city in South Africa with more than 3.3 million people--and a short distance outside of Kruger National Park. Labeling the region as “poor” doesn’t fully depict the conditions in which many of the residents live. Small one-room structures assembled from old wood and metal as well as some concrete-block homes dot the landscape. No running water, no public transportation, and limited health care are everyday inconveniences for many of the residents, although most do have electricity. This is the community in which Paul Mawela, a former president of South Africa’s Trans-Orange Conference, and his wife, Martha, settled after retirement and where they say God helped them begin a new ministry.
“This is not a project that was started by the Mawelas,” Pastor Mawela explained. “It was God who started the project. And the way He has led so far gives me a strong hope that He will continue to lead in the future.”
“I wouldn’t be able to really explain why I do this,” added Martha, “but I know I’m inspired by the Lord. I love people and I care about their well-being. Something is pushing me from behind.”
|“IS THAT ME?”: Excited children scramble to see digital pictures of themselves taken by Chris Davisson, the seventh-grade teacher at the Village Seventh-day Adventist School in Michigan, United States. [Kurt Fattic]
Nhlengelo was an idea that about five years ago began developing in the mind of the Mawelas, known affectionately in the region as Papa and Mama Mawela, when Pastor Mawela noticed that he was conducting too many funerals for young adults.
“Almost every weekend we were burying a young person who was leaving children behind,” Pastor Mawela said. “One of my own church members approached me and told me, ‘Pastor, I am HIV positive. Am I still welcome to be a member in this church?’ That gave me a challenge. And I discovered she was not the only one who thinks that to be HIV positive is to be like a leper—you must be thrown out. There are many in these communities [who feel that way.]”
He talked to pastors of other denominations in the area about the problem, and eventually they formed a consortium of 16 pastors and began working together. “We visited sick families in the area to see how we could help them. Then the local government became aware of the program and instructed us how to access government funds. That’s how Nhlengelo got started,” Pastor Mawela explained.
But the journey has not been without challenges. After receiving official recognition and registration from the local government, they were told they must have an office. So a local non-Adventist pastor donated a home for that purpose. They were then required to have a telephone and someone to run the office. A woman from the community volunteered to do this. Because of working together to surmount these and other initial obstacles, Pastor Mawela described the experience as “becoming brothers and sisters together in the Lord.”
The next step was to purchase needed supplies from funds provided by the government and recruit women from the various churches to serve as caregivers in the community. When we arrived at Nhlengelo, there were 16 full-time caregivers filling this need.
|A SIGN OF HOPE: “Nhlengelo” is a Tsonga word meaning “standing together against an enemy.” [Larry Blackmer]
“We love it,” one of the caregivers said when asked about her work. “We’re helping people and we’re making a difference. We are proud of what we do.”
And I couldn’t doubt the sincerity. The caregivers work for one year for no pay. After that, they are given 500 rand, or about US$74, a month to recompense them for their 8 to 4, 5-day workweek. And the labor can be backbreaking—lifting and bathing those who are too ill to do these things for themselves, feeding them, cleaning their homes, and taking them to the local clinic located about three kilometers from Nhlengelo.
One caregiver I talked with told me she walks an hour and a half one way to work every day. And it’s not as if she has no problems of her own. She shares a small home with several other family members, one of whom has AIDS. Another caregiver explained that she lives in a very small house with her husband, who has AIDS, three children, and three siblings. They have electricity, but no water.
“We dig holes in the ground to catch water to drink,” she said. “When that runs out, we go to the river to get water. It’s very dirty.”
But I sensed no self-pity. These women welcomed our group with hugs, smiles, and singing, happy for the opportunity to share what they do and appreciative of people who “came such a long way” to give them support.
I asked how they found the many people in the community whom they visit each day. “We just went house-to-house looking for people to help,” one woman answered. “Anyone who was ill, we started doing what we could for them.”
|SELFLESS ACTS: One of Nlengelo’s 16 caregivers assists a woman who is dying as a result of AIDS. [Kurt Fattic]
“These caregivers are really going against their culture and tradition by doing this work,” explained Ray Tetz, owner and president of the web- and video-based corporate communication company called Mind Over Media who has visited the Nhlengelo project with HFH several times. “There is such a stigma about HIV and AIDS that people can lose their jobs; they can be ostracized by society. Some just hide in their homes—they don’t want their homes taken away from them.
“The caregivers give these people back their humanity and their dignity,” he said. “The people may be sick, but they don’t have to go through this and die alone.”
One caregiver added, “Even members of your family—people who have said they love you—want nothing more to do with you if you have AIDS. People will live with it as long as possible without telling anyone. They don’t even want to go to the clinic to get tested.”
We visited several families in Dwarsloop who are struggling with debilitating illness and extreme poverty. One woman was bed-ridden, unable to even get up and walk about the room. But her faith in Jesus was strong.
“I have read my Bible through seven times,” she told us proudly.
In another family the father was dying as a result of AIDS. The mother was also ill. I looked at their young children and wondered what their future will be like.
The face that will always haunt me, though, was that of an elderly woman paralyzed from the waist down. She was crouched on a blanket covering the cement floor of her one-room house. I noticed no furniture in the room. The clothes she was wearing and a couple of blankets appeared to be her only possessions. We were told that she had no family, no children.
|“WELCOME!”: Children who are being helped by the Nhlengelo project greet Adventist World news editor Sandra Blackmer. [Larry Blackmer]
“We found her three years ago in very bad circumstances,” said Martha. “Rain was pouring in from the roof. She was shivering from the cold. We lifted her and moved her here.”
Tears came to the woman’s eyes and she started to cry. Martha explained that the woman was crying for joy because the people of Nhlengelo are caring for her every day. “She says we are her family; we are like daughters to her,” Martha said.
“What we have seen here is an amazing amount of suffering and hurt,” said Michigan Conference ministerial director Loren Nelson. “It [overwhelmed me] to see the number of homes that are affected by AIDS. You hear the statistics, but you don’t see the reality until you get here.”
“The only apparent way that people can be helped here is if an individual chooses to help someone else,” noted George Brill, associate director of NAD Information Technology Services. “With the system overwhelmed, one person makes a difference. Without that one person, most of these people would have no one to help them—not a friend on this earth.”
But the supreme tragedy and most heart-rending aspect of HIV and AIDS in South Africa and elsewhere are the children—the orphans left behind when their parents die. According to the latest statistics on the world epidemic of HIV and AIDS published by UNAIDS/WHO in May 2006, at the end of 2005 there were 12 million children in Africa—800,000 in South Africa alone—who were left orphans because of this disease. According to HFH, the African kinship care system that would once have “absorbed” children without parents into communal life can no longer be counted on to fulfill that function. Children as young as 9 or 10 years old are therefore forced into the role of “head of household.” They are too young to assume these responsibilities, yet they have no choice.
Nhlengelo is there to help these children. Orphans come to the center every day to be fed a hot meal, to be tutored with schoolwork, and to be loved. The meals are simple: corn meal, beans, and vegetables. And when it can, the center also provides soap, clothing, and blankets.
|HEADS OF HOUSEHOLD: Children as young as 9 or 10 years old are forced into the role of “head of household” when their parents die as a result of AIDS. [Kurt Fattic]
“When the children first come to Nhlengelo, they are skinny, dirty, very poor. We have to start by feeding them and making sure their health gets back to normal,” said Martha. “They are withdrawn because the community has not been accepting of them. They are rejected by their own age mates. So we try to befriend them and show them the love of God. At that stage they don’t believe that anybody could love them.”
“Meeting the kids was the highlight for me,” said Chris Davisson, seventh-grade teacher at the Village Seventh-day Adventist School in Michigan. “I learned from them to be content with what I have. They are so resilient. They have gone through so much in their young lives. . . . They have nothing, and yet they have joy. Nhlengelo is their saving grace.”
Our group had several opportunities to play and talk with some of the children. I asked one young boy what he would like to be when he grows up. “An engineer,” he answered, and I wondered, What are the chances? I don’t know the answer to that question, but Martha hopes for a better future for the children.
“They have dreams of what they want to do when they grow up, and I believe it is possible for some to fulfill those dreams,” she said. “When it comes time for the government to hand out scholarships for education, I always make sure they remember to help our children.”
The center’s staff not only feeds children at Nhlengelo but also at three other locations. We visited a local school where one of the feeding programs is held. About 100 children come there each day for a hot meal—for some the only meal of the day.
|FEEDING THE CHILDREN: Orphans come to the center every day to be fed a hot meal, to be tutored with schoolwork, and to be loved. [Larry Blackmer]
HFH provides funds not only to help feed the children but also to buy them uniforms. A child with no uniform is not allowed to attend school, and $50 buys three uniforms and one pair of shoes for the younger children—no shoes are included in that price for the older ones. Seven dollars buy a blanket.
A well at the center and a hut-like building called a lapa were also financed by HFH. The lapa provides a shaded environment where pastors from other communities are trained in how to start up and conduct a similar program in their own areas; three have been spawned so far. Children are also tutored in their schoolwork in that facility.
“Nhlengelo is an example of the types of projects Hope for Humanity supports,” says DePinto. “We look for projects that have a humanitarian impact on people’s lives, and get our church members and our congregations involved in their communities to make a difference. . . . We want the projects to be holistic in nature—to deal with the social aspects of people’s lives as well as the spiritual component.”
“I think it’s very appropriate for the church to spend its resources—human as well as monetary—on this project,” said Carol Smith, education superintendent of the Chesapeake Conference in Maryland. “The work they do at Nhlengelo is what Jesus would do if He were here on earth today.”
The unique element in the Nhlengelo project is that it is not run exclusively by Adventists but is a team effort with pastors of several different denominations in the region.
|WAITING THEIR TURN: Orphaned children wait for a hot meal at a local school where the Nhlengelo center operates a daily feeding program. [Kurt Fattic]
“Pastor Mawela was willing to see beyond the needs in the region to a real solution by forming a coalition of people—other Christians—who share the same interests. Instead of being separated by their differences, he found a way to bring them together to find solutions to the needs in their community,” said NAD vice president Debra Brill. “I believe this follows the principle laid out by Ellen White in the book Daughters of God
that encourages Adventists to unite with other groups in humanitarian causes."
Brill added, “[Church leaders in the region] understand so much more than we can understand. We in North America decide what we think is best for a community--because it works for us it should work there. . . . As Adventists we can celebrate the opportunity to partner.”
“Hope for Humanity came in not to take away the program but to assist them in making this happen,” explained Sedley Johnson, Prayer Ministries coordinator and a pastor for the Chesapeake Conference. “They helped to make this a reality.”
Because of the goodwill and credibility the Nhlengelo program has evoked from the community, Adventists have been accepted by the people there. Now a small Adventist church has recently been erected on the center’s grounds, and about 35 to 40 people attend each week.
|AFRICAN WILDLIFE: Members of the mission group could hardly restrain their excitement when they saw animals that many had never seen before, such as these cheetahs. [Larry Blackmer]
“Everyone here knows about Nhlengelo; everyone knows about the Mawelas,” said Frank Bondurant, assistant to the president of the Chesapeake Conference. “But now they’re going to learn about the church that helped to sponsor this and the God we worship.”
Learning more about the God we worship was what I too experienced in Nhlengelo. I saw Him in the selfless love and care the workers give to the helpless and the dying. I saw Him in the eyes of the children who now have small flames of hope for a better future igniting in their hearts. I saw Him in the faces of those struggling with pain and poverty but still conveying faith in God.
Craig Harris, pastor of the Cadillac and Cadillac West Adventist churches in Michigan, describes Nhlengelo as a place “where Christianity is at work. The feet are on the street, the hands are on the people, the words that are said are helping to bring encouragement and hope to those who are sick and dying as well as to the children.”
I doubt we can find anything that exemplifies God’s character more fully than that.