I recently met some men and women who gave the word “life” a new meaning: Ubuzima.
Ubuzima is a small community of Rwandans infected with HIV. More literally, it’s the Kinyrwandan word for life.
The group of mostly women meets each week at a church in Kigali. Last week, my team and I had the privilege to join them. We sang worship songs together (well, they sang and the Canadians tried to hum along). And when the worship turned into a dance circle revolving around the meeting room, the Canadians happily participated.
Even if dancing for God isn’t a normal activity for this Mennonite guy, the group’s energy and passion was irresistible. Our circle of new friends each greeted us enthusiastically with hugs, and the aura of warm love and community support was strong.
“Do we look sick to you?” asked Mama Deborah, the group’s organizer. She was right, our hosts had an abundance of energy and it was a lot of fun to spend time with these vibrant women as they sang, talked, and prayed together.
Ubuzima has grown to around 60 people, much to the surprise of Mama Deborah. She began the ministry by simply sitting and crying with a few infected women at the church. Although she didn’t give them any material support to ease their lives, the group kept multiplying.
Living with the disease has left many members weak and unable to work most jobs or lift heavy loads. In a country where people carry heavy objects for long distances, that makes daily life extra difficult. As a new way to support themselves, several of the Ubuzima women have begun spending their days creating colourful jewelry, purses, and other bags with newly-bought sewing machines.
My Canadian team and I bought several of their creations. Much as I dislike the dollar signs that inevitable hover over my head as a visiting North American, I was happy to invest in a new business that offers a livelihood to people who would otherwise have little. I hope more customers come and the business thrives.
Having HIV still carries a real stigma in Rwanda, although attitudes are shifting in recent years. Some of the women who come to the group haven’t told their families and attend Ubuzima secretly. Earlier this year, a woman died from AIDS. Her family didn’t even know she was infected. But in this small weekly community, they could relax with no shame and no condemnation.
Some of these women were infected through rape during the 1994 genocide. We asked their leader if there was any bitterness or depression resulting from the injustice that changed the rest of their lives. That depends on the person, she said, but many have decided that they can’t change what has happened to them. They can only look ahead to the future.
Around 170,000 Rwandans are living with HIV, according to the most recent estimates I could find. That’s 2.9 per cent of the adult population; certainly not the worst rate in Africa, but a far greater problem than Canada’s paltry 0.3 per cent.
Note: this is a reflection on my Rwandan experiences, but my team has actually been in Nairobi, Kenya for several days. More updates coming soon on all we’re seeing and learning here.