As nations flail now for want of sage, moral leaders even while stalked by ruin, it would be fair to ask where we might turn our eyes. What moorings might serve as safe harbor for the fashioning of a hereafter? What landmarks can reliably guide us though peril? While the coordinates of that location may be uncertain, a sufficient answer might be, “We’ll know it when we see it.” I glimpsed such an answer in a conversation 12 years ago in the midst of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in southern Africa.
Her name was Patience, a young migrant who kept a food stall in the industrial section of town: rice, goat meat stew, cabbage figured on the menu. Get there early, was the word: the lunch line snakes around the block. She appeared to be alone in her exile world. Patience fled her once proud home town, now ruined by ethnic conflict, drought and political folly. She rose early and retired late to provide for a daughter, left at home in the care of grandparents.
On a weekend afternoon she called at our place in the hope of a listening ear, some friendly counsel, perhaps a whispered prayer. She drew the curtains back on an aching story. Her former husband, she said, had long ago vanished into the faraway sprawling townships. There, as they say delicately, he had ‘made arrangements’, and unbeknownst even to himself, contracted HIV which he brought back home on a single, surprise visit. The family in growing straits, Patience later exiled herself to that roadside food stand where she later learned that she, too, was now HIV-infected – a souvenir of her child’s disgraced father.
Now there had come news that he, in the grip of full-blown AIDS, had returned derelict to his village home. His wasted frame told the story to his extended family who for fear and shame wanted nothing more to do with him. ‘Once long ago,’ Patience went on, ‘I made sacred vows of mutual care to this man. The moment has come to test the substance of those words, whether any honor or strength remains to me. I do not know if I can withstand the fear and scorn that wait to greet me in that village. So, I am asking that someone plead with heaven on my behalf.”
A holy silence followed this telling as I fought to take it in. I thought to myself, ‘Patience, it is rather you who should plead for me. I do not possess such honor or moral courage.’ But just the same, as she had asked, I whispered a plea for her – and for myself. Then she modestly took leave. It was the last time I saw her. I learned that she nursed her dying ex until the end, then returned for a while to her roadside food stall until she, too, sickened and died.
To her friends, her community and acquaintances, to those who knew her remarkable story, she had served up sustenance of a rare kind. Of a kind that would safely lead a people not just through the agonies of pandemic, but beyond to a life of refreshment and lasting goodness.