During a monthlong trip to South Africa, a group of Saint Mary's students witnessed the massive impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and took steps to make a difference.
The students stayed at God's Golden Acre Khayelihle, a facility that shelters 100 children who have been orphaned or abandoned as a result of AIDS-related illness or violence and which provides outreach to thousands of others in the surrounding rural province of Kwa Zulu-Natal.
"I was able to learn about their culture and their way of life," said senior Karen Schutten, one of the students in the January Term course called "AIDS in Africa." "They were able to give us insight about how HIV is affecting their lives."
With up to 40 percent of people living with HIV or AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, the students studied the biology of the disease and why it is especially prevalent among poor populations. The students visited an HIV prevention center and helped build a house for an HIV awareness camp.
"I was drawn to this class because it presented the chance to not only travel abroad but to interact with a different culture, to learn from them and to help them with their huge epidemic," senior Katie Ferguson said. "The course forced those who took it to reflect on global economics and health care, and to look at the difference between the way we live our lives in America and those who live on less than a dollar a day."
The class visited the remote Valley of a Thousand Hills, an area where an estimated 65 percent of adults are living with the virus - one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world. The students experienced firsthand the trauma caused by AIDS firsthand when they visited a man dying of the disease.
"I learned that help comes in a variety of different ways," Ferguson said. "Sometimes your presence is more important than the work you do. Also, I learned that in a society struggling with poverty, (a lack of) money has far from crippled its people."
At God's Golden Acre, the Saint Mary's students helped the children with their homework while preparing their own presentations on how AIDS has impacted agriculture, business and the government in Africa.
"In the U.S., we tend to view the virus as affecting only infected individuals, but when the infections rates are as high as they are in Kwa Zulu-Natal, they impact whole communities," said biology professor Jennifer Robbins, who led the trip.
The students worked alongside native women, making crafts to sell to tourists and overseas to help raise money for the battle against HIV/AIDS. They also went door-to-door with community workers to raise interest in credit unions.
"That may be the best thing Americans can help contribute: hope and support for community-based projects," Robbins said. "In this globalized economy, Africans are our neighbors, and we all bear the responsibility of the HIV burden."
In addition to their social justice work, the students spent weekends touring some of Africa's most striking sites, including the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Park and the St. Lucia wetlands.
"I will always remember the beautiful scenery South Africa has," said sophomore Ellyse Power. "It is a gorgeous country physically, but its people are what really make South Africa beautiful. Everywhere we went the African people were extremely friendly and welcoming and despite the language barrier between us, they always made us feel at home."
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