Maltese nun helps AIDS victims in Zambia.
As Sr Catherine Farrugia flicked through a newspaper on her flight to Malta, an article outlining the numerous power cuts affecting the islands caught her eye.
“Not here too,” she thought with a smile, explaining that stretches of Zambia, where she carries out missionary work, are also subject to frequent power cuts: “With the difference that each power cut can sometimes last up to three entire days.”
After 38 years of living in Zambia, southern Africa, power outages are just one of the many daily challenges the 68-year-old nun faces as part of her work.
Zambia has one of the world’s most devastating HIV and AIDS epidemics. An estimated 980,000 currently live with HIV.
Around 45,000 people die per year as a result of AIDS, while 690,000 children are orphaned due to the disease.
A qualified nurse, Sr Catherine runs an HIV/AIDS programme at the Tugwashanye Home Base Centre in the compounds of Monze and Manungu, on the outskirts of the capital city Lusaka.
She administers blood tests and tends to the physical and emotional needs of those afflicted with HIV/AIDS. She is assisted by two counsellors and 30 Zambian caregivers who look after the bedridden.
“They are less busy now, as the number of bedridden patients has decreased during the past few years thanks to the effectiveness of antiretroviral treatment,” Sr Catherine says.
Since childhood, Sr Catherine cultivated a desire to work in mission lands. Her resolve was further strengthened upon watching a documentary about the Jesuits.
She admired their selflessness and unfailing courage, despite the hardships and obstacles they faced.
In April 1965, she departed for Italy to join the Sisters of Charity of St Bartolomea Capitanio and St Vincenza Gerosa of Lovere.
“I left the island without really having the opportunity of getting to know my parents. I don’t regret it though, as I found myself when I was among the needy.”
Sr Catherine was sent to Zambia in 1974 where she was faced with the sordid state of affairs on her very first day at the hospital.
A mother had just brought her malnourished child to the hospital. Nothing could be done to save the girl and she passed away a few hours after being admitted.
The woman draped her dead daughter over her shoulders and set off on the long walk back to her village.
“The image of a mother carrying her child’s body back to her community left a huge impact on me. And unfortunately, it is a sight that I still encounter.”
The Sisters of Charity conduct workshops to sensitise the locals with respect to sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS prevention, with the aim of promoting behavioural change.
They also teach them to report human rights abuses.
Child rape is very common in Zambia. This is fuelled by the “virgin cure” myth, where many believe that engaging in sexual intercourse with a child will cure them of AIDS.
“We work hard to dispel such myths. Some also entertain the idea that praying will cure them so they stop the treatment.
“It’s very hard to change their mindset – the women are eager to learn but the men are very stubborn,” she says
“Together with the Zambian government, the headmen and the police, we strive to abolish traditional rituals, such as the practice where a widow is left completely destitute as her dead husband’s relatives seize all her possessions.
“We are seeing improvements. Most of the abuse has decreased as a result of law enforcement. Antiretroviral treatment greatly improves their quality of life.
“But we’re worried – some donors are no longer supplying free treatment.
“Funds are decreasing. If they stop altogether, our work will be undone and we’ll go back to witnessing pain and rampant dying.”
A classical music soiree will be held on September 1 at St Andrew’s Scots Church, Old Bakery Street, Valletta. The event starts at 7 p.m. Entrance is free and refreshments will be served. Sr Catherine will be present and all donations will go towards her work in Zambia and also to Dar Theresa Spinelli, a refuge for vulnerable women and children.