Aurora Community member Sister Priscilla Dlamini is a trained nurse and founder of the Holy Cross Aids Hospice, an organization that provides medical care, psychosocial support and education on HIV prevention for the people living in the poorest regions of South Africa. We talked to her about her extraordinary journey from a nun to a creator of a comprehensive support network.
– It’s not every day that you see a person who has managed to help so many people. Can you tell us a little more about how it all began for you?
I’ve had a vision of it for about 10 years, but of course, being a nun in a convent, I wasn’t allowed to start anything. What I’ve been seeing here were people coming back home from big cities, already infected with HIV/AIDS. KwaZulu Natal, the province where I live, used to be known as the “AIDS belt.” It was a thorn in my flesh when I saw those people being rejected by the hospitals, as well as by their families. After being rejected, they just went to the sugar cane fields to die alone. I had a vision that I must give these people a home to die in peace, to have a dignified death.
So I started going out to reach out to the chiefs and to ask them if I could start something like that, and they allowed me. I was going from field to field, looking for the people who were dying there by themselves. The bishop at the time was also very well-versed in social development, so he took me around to look for a place to start this mission. We found an old, dilapidated building that used to be a stable. The bishop was reluctant to give me that space because it was in a really, really bad condition. But eventually he agreed, and after a lot of work, we were able to admit our first patients – people with AIDS, as well as those with chronical and terminal ailments like cancer.
– What was it like, working with your first patients?
The first patient we admitted was a mother with a 5-year-old child. The girl was looking after her mother in the sugar cane plantation. She would go to the families to ask for food she could share with her dying mother. The people from the community told us about her, so we went there and rescued her. It was difficult; there was a steep slope and we had to carry her on a bed. The women who have joined my hospice had to help me bring that woman up to where the facility was. She stayed with us for a year.
– And how did you go from caring for terminally ill people to accommodating other needs of the community?
The people who are dying have to say goodbye. Because of the high rate of illiteracy and unemployment, people never write a will. They just say what their wishes are, and most of the dying people were asking me to look after their children. At first, I said, “no, I can’t.” I really had no idea how I could do that. But they kept asking me, and eventually I agreed. That’s how another project started.
At first, we thought we would ask an organization to take the orphaned children in, but then they told me they wanted to go home. Poor as they were, they still wanted to be together and in an environment that was familiar. That’s what I learnt from them. So we started building houses for the so-called child-headed families (families consisting of orphaned children, with no adults left to take care of them – Aurora) together with a Dutch organization called HomePlan that provided us with 200 houses. I also started giving them food every month and advocating for them in schools, so that they would be exempt from school fees, and giving them uniforms and stationery.
Another project we do concerns family planning. The government is giving away condoms and contraceptives, but people in the rural areas wouldn’t go for that. So we started having meetings dedicated to family planning, which went really well with psychosocial support.
Then there’s also the youth program that teaches music, soccer, netball, and helps with behavior modification for the children affected by AIDS, and a support program for caregivers. We also built a big kindergarten that accommodates 120 children and provided support to several others in the rural areas. In all of them, we were feeding children because they were poor. It’s still going on and it’s still vibrant, although the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a lot of disturbances. Children were staying at home; they were not going to school.
– What kind of impact would you say you’ve managed to achieve?
I would say there are some positive changes. Number one, people used to be rejected by their families, as well as the hospitals. We tried so hard to combat this stigma and discrimination. But now, people are no longer discriminating against these patients, and their families are also accepting them. And they talk easily about it; they don’t hide anything.
When I started doing this, people who were sick were not sharing this information with their family members. There were so many grandmothers who contracted this disease, and they got sick, and they died. People didn’t know about their diagnosis and didn’t take precautions, and also got the disease. I’m proud to say that now, when one is HIV-positive, they just discuss this with their family, and they talk openly about it. People used to be killed for disclosing their diagnosis, but nowadays, there’s nothing like that. Also, because we’re building houses for the child-headed families and for the orphans, they are able to land on their feet and later build better, proper houses for themselves, not just those simple prefabricated structures. They are proud of themselves and that helps with their self-esteem.
Overall, people in the community are sort of gaining confidence. When we just started, people didn’t know about their rights or what they wanted to have. When starting a project, you need people to tell you what they need. You must be able to identify their needs. But when I started, they didn’t know what they needed and were just happy to have anything, whatever you brought them. But now, they tell you: “In our area, we don’t have water, we don’t have this, we don’t have that.”
Then there’s education. When I started, there was a very high illiteracy rate. People didn’t see the need for their children to be educated. Now, we see that many places in rural areas have opened kindergartens, and children begin their education as early as at three or four years old.
– What are the hardest challenges you face?
There are some members of the community and representatives of the church who do not approve what I’m doing. In my church, I had so many problems with the priests attacking me. They didn’t want me to do all this, and they thought that I had lots of money and they wanted to have that money – the money I didn’t have! They couldn’t believe I was operating on people’s charity. It was really difficult.
So I would say that in these 20 years, I’ve seen progress in the families, in the homes. It’s a different country altogether, a different community altogether. Now, people know what they want. Those challenges to me, they became like opportunities. I’ve gained so much out of these challenges, but I’ve been going through a very hard time. Even now, it’s very hard, especially with the church. But without those challenges, I don’t think I would have been connected to the world. I wouldn’t have been known by the world.
– And what does this global recognition and being part of the international humanitarian community mean to you?
My challenges were not just local, they were not just national – it was worldwide. It was known everywhere, and that’s how I became known. In fact, that makes me very, very happy. Of course, when a challenge presents itself, it’s not nice, but you know it’s meant for the good. At the end of the day, there’s something good, which you will benefit from.
So, I’m quite excited and I’m very happy, and also happy for the people I’m working with, because they are also contributing so much, in spite of all the problems they’ve gone through. I’m very excited and proud and I get so motivated that I must continue, doing more for the people, if God still wants me to carry on a bit longer. I know He is the one who sent me to do it, and I will continue as long as I feel that that is what He wants me to do.