Confidante and More to Congolese With HIV

Teresa* is still at it. She still goes out several times a week and walks the mud paths in the hills above Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Every week, she winds her way through the shantytowns to check on the orphans and Congolese living with HIV. She sits with them in their dirt-floor living rooms and chats with them, always keeping her voice low. The cracks in their clapboard houses offer little protection from nosy neighbors.

She knows rumors fly through communities here. And when people know that someone has HIV, the taunts start; and a difficult life often becomes unbearable.

Bukavu family

Teresa (holding Jeancy, 3) and Joseph (holding Joli, 2) stand with Grace, 11, whom they adopted last year. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

Most people here tell no one they have HIV. But they tell Teresa. They trust her. That’s why during the week they keep their worries to themselves – the cough that’s developed, the rent they can’t pay, sometimes as little as $7 a month – until they hear Teresa knock on their door. When she comes in, everything they’ve kept bottled up comes tumbling out.

Teresa has changed people’s lives. She has told people where to get antiretroviral medication for their HIV; she’s given them money to start small businesses; she’s helped them deal with husbands and wives.

She volunteers for Fondation Femme Plus, which helps orphans and Congolese living with HIV. It’s a Congolese nongovernmental organization that is supported by Catholic Relief Services.

Teresa has been doing this, without pay, for eight years. Even if the program stops, she says, she will continue to help Congolese with HIV in her community.

But Teresa’s depth of compassion goes far beyond her weekly rounds. A few years ago, she met the daughter of a man she cared for. I’ll call her Grace. She was dressed in rags and slept on cardboard on the dirt. The man had HIV. He’d infected three of his wives with the virus. All had died. He asked Teresa to take Grace, who was also HIV positive. She’ll be your daughter, he told her. I’ll never come back and try to take her away from you.

Teresa and her husband, Joseph, thought long and hard about it. Then they adopted Grace.

I had visited Teresa and Grace in January 2008. When I was in Congo last month, I went back to see how they were doing.

They still live in the same cramped and tidy house. One new addition: a poster of Barack Obama on the wall. Teresa is now going to management school full time in addition to her volunteering duties. Joseph, who was unemployed when I met him last year, has found a job selling phone cards.

Grace has more confidence, and has taken to her role as a big sister to Joli, 2, and Jeancy, 3, Teresa and Joseph’s biological children. Grace has also turned into quite the cook. When Teresa – Grace calls her mom now, by the way – is out looking after the Congolese with HIV, Grace is at home chopping vegetables and singing to Joli.

She loves jumping rope, but has also taken up dodge ball. At night, she sleeps with Joli and tells her elaborate bedtime stories about magical trees and children in the forest.

Grace’s biological father still comes around to see her. But the little girl he once knew is now an inch taller, her confidence is growing, and she’s an elegant dresser. Teresa says there is no tension between them and Grace’s father. For Grace, Teresa and Joseph are Mom and Dad now.

That’s fine with her father. He’s just thankful for the new life they gave his daughter.

* All names have been changed to protect the identity of the family.

Lane Hartill is CRS regional information officer for West and Central Africa.

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