The first village built specifically for AIDS patients has opened in South Africa. Located just outside Johannesburg, the Sparrow Rainbow Village will eventually house hundreds of people, including those too sick to take care of themselves, and children who have lost their parents to AIDS.
The children of the Sparrow Rainbow Village stole the show.
Singing, chanting and beating on homemade drums, they outshone some of South Africa's best musicians at the official opening ceremony of the AIDS village that will soon be their home.
The village is the brainchild of Rev. Corine McClintock, who heads an AIDS hospice called Sparrow Ministries. A minister and a nurse, she has been caring for the bodies and souls of AIDS patients for the past 10 years. "We don't judge the people who come to us; we don't ask them how they got AIDS," she said. "We just say, we are here to help you. Have you hurt someone? Ask forgiveness. If they've hurt you, give forgiveness. Now let's write down a will, and then start to live! Because yes, this is a village of hope. And we will survive. And we will show the nation; we will be a beacon."
The very design of the buildings in the village is revolutionary. They are round huts shaped like giant bubbles, with windows and doors. That should cut down on maintenance costs in the future - no leaky roofs. The design also helps air circulation, which is good for the patients' health. And they are cheaper to build than conventional houses, which means Sparrow Ministries can build more of them.
A Sparrow Ministries nurse, Ntombini Vernon Mlebuka, says living in a village setting instead of a hospital will help patients cope with their disease. "At times we have been operating in a house, and it became difficult when a patient gets very ill, and we didn't have the facility of separating the ill from the dying," she said. "If they witness that, they become hopeless. They identify themselves with the dying person. They think they are going to undergo the same routine of death. And as a result they become traumatized and shocked. So with the new village we will be able to separate them, we will be able to screen the very ill, so that we don't create that same atmosphere of trauma and fear."
Mrs. Mlebuka says there is already a waiting list for admission to the village. The future residents are excited about their new homes.
Millia Mngati is HIV-positive and will be living in the Rainbow Village. She has been a patient of Sparrow Ministries since she was diagnosed with the virus in 1998.
She says the program has made it easier to live with AIDS in South Africa, where there is a strong stigma against people with the disease. "They make it with love, with love because they see a lot of people are dying in South Africa," she said. "Nobody [else] takes care of these people. Even our own nation, they don't care with us. If we've got AIDS, we've got AIDS. They don't want to know about it. They hate everybody with AIDS."
Ms. Mngati is 47 and has no children of her own, but last year she essentially adopted one of the other Sparrow Ministries patients - a 3 year old boy named Pule. She says he has given her a reason to live. "Sometimes the dreams come true, sometimes not," she said. "The way I love him, I want he must get a good education, he must be a doctor for Sparrow. I wish God could help me with that. Then I can die, after I see him like that."
Some AIDS activists have expressed concern about the Sparrow Rainbow Village. In August, the National Association of People With AIDS issued a statement criticizing the idea of segregating AIDS patients from the rest of society. The group said people with AIDS do not need their own village - all they need is for their families and friends to understand them and care for them.
But that goal is a long way off. Willie Madisha is president of the country's main labor federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions. "This is an achievement, a victory for all people of our country, and in particular the poor, the working class," he said. "Indeed, this must be a place for life, a place for victory against HIV and AIDS. And we have no doubt that through this village, our country shall triumph."
When the village is complete, it will house several hundred patients. There is a medical clinic, a vegetable garden and a playground for the children, some of whom are HIV-positive and some of whom are healthy but have lost their parents to AIDS.
It will also eventually include an arts-and-crafts studio, where healthier patients will create goods they can sell to raise funds for the village.