The Queens of Chavara: Carmelite sisters at ground zero of India’s AIDS epidemic
She giggles as she runs her fingers through the doll’s hair, a riot of reds, yellows, blues, greens. Fourteen years old, she is reduced to a much younger day, perhaps one she had never experienced in quite this innocent way.
A ray of sunshine bursts brilliantly into a chilly morning in the northeast of India as my wife, Tracy, hands each of the girls at Chavara Home a doll, handmade by Dollies Making a Difference, a group of Los Angeles women who have evoked thousands of similar emotions from children across the globe.
In this happy moment, it is hard to believe we are standing at ground zero of the AIDS epidemic in India—and that this ecstatic teenager is H.I.V.-positive.
In this happy moment, it is hard to believe we are standing at ground zero of the AIDS epidemic in India.
Let us call her Rose, for that easily could be her name in this largely Christian part of India. Her young life has been stalked by this long shadow. Her father contracted AIDS from a prostitute and infected her mother, who then gave birth to Rose. First her father and then her mother died of AIDS. As she watched them die, she gradually became aware the virus killing them was within her as well. Without a precise regime of drugs and good nutrition, the disease would take her, too.
Here at the Chavara Home in Dimapur, Nagaland, five sisters of the Congregation of the Mother of Carmel stand not only with girls orphaned by AIDS but with the men and women from the surrounding area who contribute to the sad statistics ranking Nagaland highest in AIDS infections in India and Dimapur the highest district within the state.
Although Africa more often dominates coverage and assistance for persons with AIDS, India has the third largest number of H.I.V. infections in the world after South Africa and Nigeria. According to a 2015-16 study, approximately one in 400 Indians is infected; in Nagaland that rate is one in 113. But here in Dimapur the number is staggering: One in every 27 had the virus. The local hospital admits 60 to 70 new cases every month.
India has the third largest number of H.I.V. infections in the world after South Africa and Nigeria.
Truckers and drug runners carried the disease up and down National Highway 29, the state’s main artery. Dimapur is a key commercial center and crossroads, drawing people from outlying villages. Ethnic warfare, poverty and a dysfunctional health system whip up a perfect storm for spreading the disease. Largely untreated until a few years ago, AIDS moved rapidly through a population who too late would realize not only its prevalence but its deadly web of infection. Prevention was hampered by ignorance and then government inertia; treatment today whipsaws because of erratic funding and corruption.
The Fatherless and the Widow
After handing out the dolls, we are eager to see more of Chavara Home. Our next stop is the tiny office of Sister Agie. A woman who bespeaks Carmelite simplicity, she has dispensed with her last name and is equally straightforward and unemotional as she tells of her work. She is a small woman with salt-and-pepper curls stubbornly sneaking out from beneath her white coif and the steady gaze of a battle-weary yet battle-ready veteran.
Slowly, as if recalling each by name, she runs her hand over some of 5,000 brown folders jammed into shelves that are as tall as she is. Each contains the records of an AIDS patient treated in the home. “They came to us looking so pitifully,” Sister Agie begins, “skinny, sick, no one to care for them. We put them on anti-retroviral drugs, provided food as best we can. We were able to save so many.” Her fingers stop at the end of a row of folders, “But not all.”
The Carmelites, many of whom are nurses, had come to an area parish some 15 years ago to catechize and provide general medical assistance for the poor and unserved, but the scourge of AIDS quickly refocused their work. In the tiny building where they lived—no bigger than perhaps 20-by-20 feet—they pushed their cots closer together and put up a privacy curtain to make room for a widow who had lost her husband to AIDS. Then another came, homeless, with nowhere to go. Then an AIDS widow, this time with young children.
Some of the earliest arrivals died; but as AIDS continued to ravage the community, more women came, bringing their children. They were “tribals,” members of indigenous groups who have fought and killed each other in the past. But now they were united in their plight. The curtain was useless; soon even the sisters’ valiant efforts to provide merciful and compassionate care in their own home became untenable.
At first, even other Carmelites would not visit Chavara Home, fearing they would contract the virus from being with the girls.
They bought a small parcel of land with a tiny house 10 years ago and named their new mission Chavara Home. It was in honor of the legendary 19th-century Carmelite priest, St. Kuriakose Elias Chavara, canonized this past November by Pope Francis, who created numerous schools and homes for members of India’s lower castes and tribes. He founded the sisters’ order in 1866, making it the oldest indigenous religious congregation for women religious in the country. There are over 6,400 sisters serving in Africa, Asia, America and Europe.
With AIDS patients to care for in that building, the sisters quickly constructed a small convent and hastily threw up a temporary bamboo shelter to provide separate living quarters for the girls. They hoped to start construction immediately on a permanent home for the girls. And the arduous journey of faith began.
At first, even other Carmelites would not visit Chavara Home, fearing they would contract the virus from being with the girls. Neighbors threw garbage over the walls to discourage the sisters from staying. But then, as neighbors’ relatives needed medical attention, slowly, the sisters became part of the community.
“Yes, the prostitute who came to us infected, who has spread this horrible disease, perhaps even to one of our girls, she, too, must be loved.”
Carmelite spirituality proved their anchor in those early days. As the sisters tried as best they could to experience the divine indwelling, they also sought to see God’s presence in others.
“Yes, the prostitute who came to us infected, who has spread this horrible disease, perhaps even to one of our girls, she, too, must be loved,” says Sister Agie, her eyes looking through me, staring at that midpoint where reality and contemplation are joined. “And yes, she may go back to her work because she has no other way to support herself. And we will love her each time.”
“Is it easy? No. But we will,” she pauses. “God will.”
A Chance to Thrive
Sister Agie continues our tour along a darkened hallway that opens onto three small rooms for the sickest AIDS patients. Eight are there during our visit, two women, the rest men, some intravenous drug users, others who contracted the disease through sexual contact. All are painfully thin, hollow-eyed and silent. One woman lies curled up on a bed; she will soon be sent home to die. The sisters will continue to visit her, but here it is a matter of triage. Nothing more can be done; and another patient, who can be helped, needs the bed.
Sister Agie leads us by a makeshift wooden ramp at the side of an unfinished shell of a squat one-story structure, a toilet block, which would provide bathing and sanitary facilities for the girls. “If we could finish it,” Sister Agie smiles wearily. “For now, we all share what we have.”
Just beyond is a rickety woven bamboo shelter, used as a dormitory and study area for both girls and sisters that has finally breathed its last. The sides sag, the roof leaks and “it is air conditioned year around,” says Sister Agie with that small shrug of resignation I have come to know so well among women religious in over 10 years of trips to India.
Some of the girls, bundled up in several layers of clothing, were inside reciting their lessons, breath visible in the cold morning air.
Their dormitory, for now, is a crowded second-story utility room in the convent, with not even enough room to store their few articles of clothing. They wash in cold water, when there is a sufficient supply. And yet, in the time I spent at Dimapur, the girls were always well dressed, on school days with uniforms nicely pressed, shoes shined, braids crisply woven.
The sisters care for 28 girls, ages 6 to 16. Five are H.I.V.-positive. “There many, many more children who are living in horrible conditions,” says Sister Agie. “We only wish we could take more and we will...some day,” the last words come slowly, “as soon as we can build.”
“Yes, some are H.I.V.-positive, but what is that?” asks Sister Agie. “They are precious children; they have their whole life before them.”
“Yes, some are H.I.V.-positive, but what is that?” asks Sister Agie. “They are precious children; they have their whole life before them.” (When Sister Agie later emailed me photos of the girls, the file was entitled “Chavara Queens.”) “We will make sure they take their medication, the cocktail of drugs. We feed them as well as we can afford. Chavara Home is their sanctuary, we are their family. Some of them have been homeless, cast out; some of their homes were burnt to the ground in ethnic fighting or because people thought they would get AIDS just by touching them; they have suffered so much. ”
One of the children who recently arrived at Chavara Home is a 12-year-old girl. After losing both parents to H.I.V./AIDS, the child, also infected, was placed in the care of her uncle. She was kept in a separate room from the rest of her family, fed separately and poorly, basically rejected. Soon, a simple sore on her head became a life-threatening infection.
When she arrived, the sisters began with simple hygiene—bathing her and washing her hair. Beneath her matted hair, they found more than 50 maggots on her untreated wound. After weeks of care and treatment with antibiotics and daily dressings for her wound, nourishment, attention and care, she is a happy, enthusiastic child attending school in fifth standard.
The sun is now high in the Nagaland sky as Sister Agie stands next to neat rows of flowers in beds that lay claim any inch of land not already utilized, flowers that are struggling to emerge from the hard-packed soil. In the convent, the cook is preparing a simple lunch of boiled plantain, spicy curried greens and white rice. Sister Agie bends down to free some yellowing leaves so they might have a chance to thrive. She gently pushes aside a clod of dirt.
“Please come, let us eat,” she says, pointing the way to the convent.