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Gol Gumbaz - photo taken during a family trip ...

Gol Gumbaz  in Bijapur (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We have just enjoyed a couple of days in Bijapur – a predominantly Muslim town about 100kms away from Manvi (where I am based).  One of the members of the Jesuit community is being reassigned there and so we were moving his luggage for him and taking it as an excuse to have a very quick 24hr ‘break’.  I realised a whilst back that many of the hard-working Indian Jesuits do not have ‘holidays’ as we would understand them.  So it was very nice just to spend a bit of time with each other (we were 6 priests and a social worker from Slovakia!) outside of the pressure of work.  Very memorable was visiting a huge mausoleum – the Gol Gumbaz – which has the second biggest dome in the world and the largest whispering gallery.  But what will stay in my mind for longer was the couple of visits we paid to small but very impressive works run by some of the Catholic Nuns in Bijapur caring for AIDS patients.

Orphaned by AIDS

Orphaned by AIDS 

In 2009 it was estimated by the UN that 2.4 million people were living with HIV in India, which equates to a prevalence of 0.3%. While this may seem low, because India’s population is so large, it is third in the world in terms of greatest number of people living with HIV. With a population of around a billion, a mere 0.1% increase in HIV prevalence would increase the estimated number of people living with HIV by over half a million. Particularly at risk are the Devadasi women, a group who have historically been dedicated to the service of gods. These days, this has evolved into sanctioned temple prostitution. It is also somewhat ‘in the closet’.  So the dedicated sisters told me that the patients often arrive on their last legs…when it is clear that their immune system is shot, that they are dying.  The social taboo is so strong that it stops them from coming until it is too late.  The sister, to their credit, have an ambulance and go out and search for them.  There is little they can do when they arrive but at least they can administer drugs that slow the decline, and at least they are surrounded by a community that gives them a sense of dignity. I was very impressed by the joy and gentleness of the sisters who look after them.  The second place we visited was a sister community that take AIDS orphans, again sometimes literally taking them from the streets. For me this was very intense.  A small group of thirty children – without parents – who often arrived at the sisters malnourished, after sadly being neglected whilst their final parent died, and taboos and silence mean that they were left alone.  One of the sisters told me that they were all HIV positive.

However they all seemed so happy – well fed – one beautiful little girl sat on my knee as she ate her lunch.  I was told that she had arrived only three days ago.  The sister asked if she would like to leave with me – but the gorgeous little girl, very content sitting there, said no she wanted to stay with her new friends. My heart had already been melted, as only small children can do!  But I was so impressed with the set up.  The long drive back home, much to the surprise of my brothers, I was very quiet, thinking of this little angel, but also about the wonderful work these sisters were doing.   It is laughable when you here people talking about how religion is a force for bad in the world – how ignorant so many of them are!