Even those who are dying are happy at his hospice

When he moved to the diocese of Rustenburg, North West, Bishop Kevin Dowling of the Catholic Church had no idea what awaited him.

When he moved to the diocese of Rustenburg, North West, Bishop Kevin Dowling of the Catholic Church had no idea what awaited him.

God had blessed this once small town with vast mineral resource fortunes. Fate had, in equal measure, dealt the same place a cruel hand.

The enormity of it all shocked and horrified him as an increasing number of his flock died as a result of the Aids epidemic.

Most of them were young women driven to prostitution by poverty. In 1998, he set up his first Aids clinic in Freedom Park, a vast squatter camp.

Despite the odds against him, he set up Tapologo, a village with its own hospice on land owned by the church outside Rustenburg.

By its very nature, a hospice is a place of death. That's exactly what many Aids sufferers go there to do.

In the first two years alone, 300 men, women and children died there.

The bishop has seen the stress and the pain in the eyes and tears of his care-givers .

"To watch a child die," he says, "is excruciating for these wonderful people, who are often mothers themselves, but who possess an extraordinary capacity to love."

To understand the pain that is a constant companion to staff at the centre, one only has to pick the story of one child among many.

The boy, nine, was picked up by one of Tapologo's care-givers. He was dying of Aids. He had meningitis. Was partially deaf. Had recently become blind.

At the hospice, he would turn over on one side in a foetal position, completely silent. However, with some love and care, he began to blossom. In a few days he was a different boy. Staff later learnt how intelligent he was when he started talking.

"It is nice here. Every morning the sisters wash me and I have new clean sheets. The food is so good - and they love me."

The people who loved and cared for him had to watch him die despite all what they did for him.

But in many an instance, death has left the hospice with its tail between its legs. Patients who came without hope, have been helped to fight back.

But what brings joy to the heart is what the hospice has achieved with fighting mother-to-child transmission.

There have been 32 births to HIV-positive mothers at Tapologo so far and none of their babies are HIV-positive. It is a statistic that pleases Bishop Dowling no end.

But the bishop doesn't reveal information regarding his personal sacrifices.

His personal philosophy could, perhaps, be found in one paragraph in one of his many writings about the Aids epidemic:

"I believe we can discover and express a spirituality for those living with Aids. But it is a spirituality which needs to search for stillness, prayer and humility."

In more than two hours of interviewing him, not a word came out that last year he was the recipient of the International Person of the Year Award presented to him by the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organisation in New York.

Not a word came out that he had been profiled in publications as diverse as the prestigious TIME magazine and US Catholic in the US.

He makes light of the fact that his personal views on the use of condoms to curb the spread of Aids have placed him on a collision course with the Vatican.

He reasons that the church has always allowed exceptions to its 1968 papal ban on contraception such as when a woman's health is at risk.

"Likewise," he argues, "Aids is rife in our poor communities. The church must allow condoms for the same reason."

Surely, there is something wrong with our moral theology, he argues.

The clarity of his thought, the power of his argument and the sheer brilliance of his mind is startling. He's articulate, forthright and refuses to be held ransom to a dogma, religious or otherwise.

"He is the Aids bishop," says Father James Keenan, a professor of theological ethics at Boston College, Massachusetts.

"The issue of the Catholic Church and condoms has to be resolved by listening to men of the church who have the experience, tenacity and wisdom of Bishop Dowling."

It crosses the mind. What would have happened to the diseased people of this vast mining town had God not shepherded Bishop Dowling this way.

In this village, which is supposed to be a repository of death, there are sick people more alive than we could ever hope to be.

There's the kind of serenity, abundance of love, trust and humility that a million-rand bush holiday could never match.

But it has not always been like that. In the villages around the mining boom that is Phokeng just outside Rustenburg, there was always the gnashing of teeth.

The wailing of parents as they buried their children. The stateless economic refugees from all over Africa who writhed alone in their dark, shabby shacks with imminent death the only constant company.

But that was before Dowling was transferred to the area to oversee the church in vast parts of the North West and sections of Limpopo.

The bishop's eyes were opened to the plight of the people of Phokeng and surrounding villages. His ears caught the cries of the people as Aids ravaged the land and precipitated something frightfully close to a decimation of a people.

But subdued smiles and the happy faces of nurses and general workers at the hospice radiate pleasure.

Those very faces mask some of the heartache that so often visits the pristine mud-walled wards of Tapologo.

One of the nurses, Elizabeth Moremi, who walked past us, greeted myself and colleague, Bruce Fraser, with a warm smile.

She repeated the same greetings to the bishop in impeccable Setswana.

But she was in the process of trying to exorcise the painful memory of a young, vibrant boy called Godfrey.

Only last month, the 13-year-old boy, with courage born out of a life doomed from conception, lay in bed quietly reading the Bible.

He declined the offer of his normal meal.

"There's no need," he said, "for I'm ready to die."

Was it courage, from someone so young, to face death square in the face on his own terms?

Or was it simply delayed common sense that hope lives elsewhere?

We shall never know.

Godfrey was born with the HI virus, another victim of mother-to-child transmission. He asked the nurses to call his grandmother; the only mother he had known since his own succumbed to the disease when he was still young.

Grandma came. She never got to talk to her favourite grandson.

He was gone before he could say goodbye - the only thing he so badly wanted to do before he could join his mom in the world beyond.

"Johanna was Godfrey's nurse. She was so attached to the young man. His death has crushed her."

But there she saunters past us, dear, young Johanna, shoulders raised. Strong. Purposeful. Efficient. It is difficult to deduce from her demeanour that, only last month, she had wrestled with death.

There are 30-odd others, who died at the hospice since 2004.

"It was simply too late for them when they came here. We couldn't save them."

Bishop Kevin speaks slowly this time, haunted by images of the dead. People he came to know by name.

"All we could do for them was to make their last days as peaceful and caring as possible."

Like a candle in the wind, it was only a matter of time before their painful lives were snuffed out.

If it's any consolation, they know that they have left their children in safe hands with Bishop Kevin and his able staff.

But there are other statistics that swell the chest and compels you to shout with unrestrained joy.

It is something that makes the Bishop mightily proud. No new-born baby has died as a result of mother-to-child transmission since the hospice started dishing out antiretrovirals to pregnant patients. And none has contracted the disease. There have been 32 births so far.

Phokeng and the entire greater Rustenburg area is an Aids tinderbox.

The discovery of new platinum deposits have changed the once small and conservative town into a brash city.

But, reputedly one of the fastest-growing economies in the country, it is a double-edged sword.

The mining boom attracts people from all over South Africa and the rest of the continent eager to ride the waves of the boom.

Shantytowns have mushroomed. Dreams have been dashed.

Men, who came to town leaving wives and families in villages elsewhere in Africa, want cheap thrills. There is a booming market for that too.

Stateless women who have come and could not find employment or rely on state, make money selling their favours, and spreading the curse of HIV-Aids.

For the interview with the Bishop Dowling, go to www.sowetan.co.za.