Review of One Day This Will All Be Over - Mukai

Mukai
October 2013

Book Review

Academic Distance and Human Closeness

Ross Parsons, sick One day all this will be over – Growing up with HIV in an eastern Zimbabwean town, Weaver Press, Harare, Zimbabwe, 2012, pp. 196.

Reviewed by Oskar Wermter SJ

The Zimbabwean author is clearly committed to very high standards as a scholar and researcher who keeps interrupting his narrative by reflecting on methodology which is complicated by the fact that he is both a psychotherapist and an ethnographer (social anthropologist) who has to mediate between two disciplines.

The non-academic reader may be overawed by the sophistication of these reflections, even discouraged from going on reading this scientific study. He will be amply rewarded if he perseveres.

The object of this study is HIV and AIDS in children in Mutare, the researcher’s home town. He formed a psycho-social support group with affected children, and soon finds that more is asked of him than scholarly distance and scientific objectivity. He gets drawn into the lives of these children who live on the margins of society. And the children, their parents and families, guardians and carers, regard him as kin – substitute father, uncle or elder brother. This triggers off a detour into the Shona kinship system (relying on anthropological work by Michael Bourdillon and J.F.Holleman).

Parsons’ study covers the years 2005 – 2010, the most critical years of the “failed” Zimbabwean state when the economy collapsed under astronomical inflation, political violence was rampant and health services as well as the educational system provided by government broke down; unemployment forced parents and caregivers to seek a livelihood beyond the borders, disrupting family life and hitting these vulnerable children hard. The researcher is not content with narrow clinical findings; he feels obliged to put them into their wider social context and describe the impact the “failed state” and its failing services have on the children in their precarious state.

Surprisingly, some dedicated health workers still maintain medical services: at hospital “outpatients” the children and their carers meet and find support in each other’s company. Traditional healers are also sought after. But it is the (mostly charismatic or Pentecostal) churches and African independent churches (e.g. vapostori) which are most relied upon for “healing”, more especially “faith healing”.

The sick children find themselves in a cruel dilemma. They are told to have faith and rely solely on God’s intervention (‘The best way to show that I believe would be to stop these pills’ p. 137), and yet feel they cannot do without the medication they are offered as life-saving, sometimes by the very churches who preach ‘faith and prayer alone’. If they take the medicines, does that mean they have no faith (in God’s healing power)?

The author would like to free the afflicted children, his children by now and friends, from this dilemma, but sees no way out given the stance of these churches which he views critically. The reviewer suggests that this cruel dilemma – faith in God’s healing power OR reliance on the human ingenuity of modern medicine, but not both - is the tragic result of bad theology.

God the Creator is greater than the whole of his creation. He does not rival human factors. He is not in competition with human agents, e.g. with medical doctors. He is greater than all these and he makes use of them.

We may ask God for healing which He may bring about by using the skills of medical workers. Christ the Healer continues his work with the hands of dedicated doctors and nurses. Prayer and medical science are compatible: a surgeon who has faith may pray for the success of the operation he performs while using all his intellectual gifts and skills in the process.

We thank God for ARV drugs through which He has given new hope to HIV/AIDS patients. Parsons also questions the attitude of churches towards the use of condoms. While fully aware of the great variety of “Christianities” in Zimbabwe, in this instance he sees only uniformity. In fact the debate (and practice) has reached a level of sophistication and discernment among Christians concerned with AIDS which I do not see reflected in the author’s remarks.

Even within Christian communities HIV-positive people do not “come out” about their status. Within families where the status is well known and children may show physical signs of being acutely ill with AIDS (weight loss, emaciation, rashes, open wounds, loss of hair etc) secrecy is preserved. Only secondary illnesses are talked about. While the stigma is being preserved, the stigmatized live in terrible isolation. Clearly this is a challenge to Christians to create a space where people living with AIDS may “come out” and be fully accepted.

What can “HIV –positive, poor children living precariously in a failing state” hope for? Many long for being together with their loved ones who have passed on before them in a state of heavenly bliss, freed from their present misery. Parsons seems to regard such expectations as “an opiate of hope”. One has to admit that some of the dreams the children have facing their end seem to be escapist. Christian faith and hope are more profound.

In a footnote, the author declares (to us his readers, maybe not to the children): “I have come to hold a view of ‘hope’ that is deeply critical, less than optimistic, and certainly not in keeping with Christian notions of ‘hope’ as a cardinal virtue. It seems to me that hope is best understood as a form of protective denial against unbearable emotional pain, pace Freud”.  It is the psychoanalyst speaking here.

Christian hope is based on our dying with Christ so as to rise with him too. We do not deny, let alone ignore, human suffering and death. Nor do we deny the hope of meeting up with the Risen One and sharing in his life, either. This is a deeply personal encounter, “seeing God eye to eye”. Dreams of paradise, of bliss and enjoyment have nothing to do with this. “We are already God’s children, but what we shall be in the future has not yet been revealed…we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he really is” (1 John 3: 2).  The imagination of children of course is not satisfied with this relatively abstract statement.

Other researchers and writers have described the rituals surrounding death objectively. Parsons accompanies the dying, trying to understand the subjective dimension, the feelings, emotions, fear and anxieties the children in their “failing state” go through. They do not protest. They do not blame the “failed state”, there is no anger.

One child left a note to be given to the author: “My loving father, I have struggled a long time. I have tried. I am very sick. Read Psalm 23. Remember my mother’s family. Your loving son.” This is not an easy book to read and understand. This review is hardly doing justice to it. It certainly does not dispense from undertaking the labour of actually following in the footsteps of the author as he takes us along the path he has walked painfully with these suffering, dying children of Mutare.