Leaving God for God

In Ethiopia, the Daughters of Charity respond to the AIDS crisis

text and photographs by Peter Lemieux

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What have the Daughters of Charity learned from their experiences in Ethiopia? That everyone there – rich and poor, educated and illiterate, elderly and infant – is directly or indirectly affected by AIDS. No one gets by unscathed.

As a result, most of the Daughters’ projects in Ethiopia, in social work, education or health, include an AIDS element.

The enormity of the AIDS epidemic in Ethiopia is staggering. According to the most recent United Nations estimates, three million of the 64 million people in Ethiopia are infected with the AIDS virus. One million children are orphaned. Fifty to 70 percent of prostitutes, many in militarized zones, test positive for H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS.

The disease is spreading at such an alarming rate that by 2010, seven million to 10 million Ethiopians will be infected. More than 1.7 million, or 15 to 25 percent of Ethiopia’s children, will be orphaned.

The fight against AIDS. Sister Aster Zewdie, the Provincial for Ethiopia’s Daughters of Charity, said she and the rest of her community of 67 sisters did not enter religious life to sit at a desk crunching numbers. They joined the Daughters to get their hands dirty.

In a spirit of humility, simplicity and charity, the Daughters of Charity have stepped into action to serve those in most need, following the example of their 17th-century founder, the French priest St. Vincent de Paul.

“It is our charism that we serve the poor through Christ and we serve Christ through the poor,” Sister Aster said.

“St. Vincent didn’t want Christians to stay away from the poor by praying.

“He said, ‘If the poor are looking for you, you leave God for God.’ So you go out from the chapel, and you go to serve these poor people. He always said, ‘Go find the poor.’”

With this in mind, the sisters say their morning prayers and head out to work.

Yet they are also the first to admit that the work of the Daughters of Charity in Ethiopia, a country roughly twice the size of Texas, does little to even register a blip on the fight-against-AIDS radar screen.

Sister Aster said: “Most of our sisters are very young. We are trying our best, but we are really limited when we see the need we have here in Ethiopia.”

AIDS programs in Addis Ababa. In District 23, one of the poorest sections of Addis Ababa, the sisters run an urban development program that builds roads, provides technical training and offers income-generating activities for the 20,000 residents. Known to have one of the highest disease rates in the country, District 23 is at the epicenter of the AIDS crisis.

Realizing this, the Daughters of Charity began an AIDS awareness campaign. Each week, a group of health trainers teaches AIDS awareness and prevention to the community. Serving tea, coffee and biscuits to the villagers as they arrive, the organizers create a pleasant atmosphere that everyone enjoys.

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Tags: Ethiopia HIV/AIDS Daughters of Charity