Penias Mwale, my brother
Christian Brother Richard Walsh meets a young Zambian man dying of AIDS. For Richard, the encounter brings the gospel to life.
Two months ago I had never heard of Penias Mwale. He is the son, from a previous marriage, of our cook, Robson. One day Robson asked me to take his ‘boy’ to the nearby clinic for some medicine, as he was unable to walk.
Penias lives about one kilometre away with his grandparents in a very small house, made of concrete blocks. It is without electricity and running water. Cooking is done on charcoal braziers.
Robson guides me through the streets to the house, from which eventually emerges a very thin and obviously sick young man. I had thought Robson told me he was 15, and when seeing the lad, quite believed him. Only later did I discover that he is 29. He is assisted into our minibus and to the clinic we go. Here he is given some yellow pills, presumably medicine for his ailment and we return him home.
Over the next few days I ask Robson whether there is any improvement. At first it seems there is. However one day when I ask, I am told that he is not getting any better and so I offer to take him to a private clinic. The offer is accepted. I discover Penias asleep on a reed mat on the ground outside his father’s house. He is obviously very thin, very tired and very sick. We manhandle him into our minibus and off we go to the doctor.
The doctor seems less than enthusiastic about treating the patient, though of course does so and does so very professionally. I suspect he thinks Penias is a lost cause. A malaria test is done. He has malaria. An HIV test is done. He is HIV positive. He receives post-test counselling. He learns that if he begins the newly introduced treatment of anti-retrovirals, he must stick to the regime for the rest of his life. To get on to the scheme he must go to the main public hospital – UTH or University Teaching Hospital, in Kampala.
And so we go to UTH. As it happens there are mercifully few at the ‘filter clinic’ through which one must pass before getting into the hospital proper. After an examination by a doctor, who is very attentive and professional I must say, we are sent on our way for BP, temperature etc. and then to the admissions ward.
Upon reaching the admissions ward we are told that there are no free beds and that he has to stay in his wheelchair. Now this could mean not for minutes but for hours, even overnight. I might add that this saga has begun at 2 pm. Fortunately however we discover that there is an empty bed and since possession is ten-tenths of the law we possess it immediately, grotty sheets and all.
Penias is thirsty. He takes the water we have brought. He wants to urinate. We tell him where the toilet is, but the doctor who is at the next bed tells him that he will be out of breath if he goes there and she wants to examine him. In desperation he takes one of the three cups we brought and pees into it. His father takes it for emptying.
Penias is hungry. We also remember to give him the malaria tablets from our doctor. He drinks the soups and takes some pasta. Then he gesticulates for something. We don’t know what it is. Next thing he grabs his jacket and vomits into it. Before the next throw, I provide him with the second cup. His father takes it for emptying and we carefully put the jacket into a plastic supermarket bag we happen to have.
Throughout it all are the sounds of people in agonising pain. There is the moving sight of family, friends and lovers at the side of their loved ones and ready to stay the night perched on the side of the bed. There are the doctors and nurses performing their duties professionally and serenely in such conditions.
We decide to leave. So ends a day that began with my giving a morning’s input on spirituality to a group of religious preparing for final profession. The afternoon has taken a different twist and from two in the afternoon until 9.30 that night, the spirituality has been a practical expression of what in the morning had been a cosy discussion.
That night I do not sleep well. I have nightmares of hospitals and skeletons. The following day I was due to go to a meeting in Accra, Ghana, on the other side of the continent! By the time I return to Lusaka, after one week, I find that Penias has been discharged, has been home, has been bleeding incessantly and has been admitted to the local clinic.
The day after my return from Accra, Robson gets word that the local clinic is referring Penias to no other place than UTH. Yes, indeed, here we go again. I drive to the clinic hoping that we will be told that we can by-pass the filter clinic.
What I see next calls images of Auschwitz to mind. The image that appears in a wheelchair is all teeth and eyeballs. The emaciated body has a head thrown back with mouth open. There is no strength to hold it upright. The bag of skin and bones is loaded into the bus, and there along with this broken body is a father totally nonplussed. I cannot believe the deterioration that has occurred in one week. We manage to get Penias from the bus. In the moment that he is standing prior to sitting in the wheelchair his track pants fall down. Even the elastic waistband cannot hold them up. He has no waist, no hips, no bottom.
We take him to the clinic, by-passing the less sick. Fortunately there is one spare bed, with a clean plastic covered mattress. We waste no time putting Penias on that. Eventually his blood pressure is taken. His arms are so thin that the gadget cannot be wrapped tightly enough and the father must hold it against the arm.
Meanwhile the man in the next bed is soiling himself. The smell is overwhelming and the sight of the relatives taking off his pants and cleaning him up is more than enough. I leave for the next room.
That evening I decide to have my meal alone and replay the day’s events. I find myself in tears at the enormity of the tragedy not only of this young man but of the other many thousands like him. I am grateful for the tears. I go to my room and ‘weep for Jerusalem’. Four weeks ago I had never heard of this man. I did not know he existed. Yet today I know that he is my brother and there are thousands, no millions, like him. He has plunged me more profoundly into the depth of what it is to be a human person than I could imagine.
For many years I have heard that one is evangelised by the poor. What is it to be evangelised? I think now it is to become aware of the good news that we are all connected. That each of us is a brother/sister to the other. That we are not threats to each other, not enemies but gifts. That each of us has a responsibility for the other and that, in the realisation of this, the world can be different and the kingdom of God can emerge.
In Penias Mwale I see a man who is my brother. But his body is ravaged by AIDS. Penias is dying, not because he is HIV positive or has AIDS. He is dying because he is poor. He is dying because he has had poor nutrition. He is dying because until recently anti-retroviral drugs for HIV have been unavailable in so-called ‘third world’ countries because of their cost.
He is dying because those of us with more than we need choose to indulge ourselves rather than even think about the survival of our poor brothers and sisters. He is dying because so many of us put more emphasis on orthodoxy (so-called right doctrine/ideas in all its irrelevance) than orthopraxy (right actions).
Over the next few days I ask about Penias’ welfare, to be told that he is still sick. Robson thinks he will get better. I tell him that I think he will die. One month after the first visit to the private clinic and UTH, I hear that Robson’s son, Penias Mwale, aged 29, has died 12 days short of his 30th birthday.
This has been the story of one person whom I happened to encounter. Can you imagine the enormity of the situation where the equivalent of one jumbo jet full of people dies every hour from AIDS? This is the situation in Africa. The amount of human suffering is beyond description, yet there is an appreciation of life and a gratitude for the smallest of things that is astounding. Somehow, there is a great freedom which comes with an appreciation that life has boundaries. May we all pray that some way will be found to remove this dreadful scourge.