Peninsula women plan trip to Swaziland

Posted: Sunday, June 22, 2003

The women sitting around Renee Duncan's living room Wednesday night didn't look much like typical mission workers.

And they aren't.

They are mothers and wives, family caretakers. But they also are Christians with a deep belief that they have been called to help others.

Seven women from the Kenai Peninsula, and one from Anchor-age, will travel to Swaziland, a small country wedged between South Africa and Mozambique, next month to spend two weeks serving as volunteer medical workers.

Swaziland, like so many African nations, has been hit hard by the AIDS epidemic. The 2002 CIA World Factbook adjusts its population estimates for the country to account for the high infant mortality rate and low life expectancy caused by the disease, which affects more than 35 percent of the adult population.

High poverty levels limit the availability of life-prolonging medications. Taboo forbids discussion of the disease, and a culture of polygamy spreads the sexually transmitted disease.

Duncan, a pastor at Peninsula Christian Center, has seen the impact of the disease firsthand when she traveled to Swaziland for a conference in 2000. She recalls visiting a village clinic during her trip and seeing rooms full of dying patients.

"There was a room packed wall-to-wall with beds full of women who had AIDS," Duncan said, tears filling her eyes. "We just went in and held them. They just started weeping. We found out later that people don't touch them; they're afraid."

She and an Oregon woman traveling with her decided then and there that they wanted to return with more people to help the Swazi population. Three years later, they are making that dream a reality.

The eight Alaska women, many of whom have a nursing background, will meet with a group of women from Portland, Ore., for the trip. Together, the groups will travel to Swaziland a 30-some hour trip to do what they can for the people.

While the Oregon group will focus on children's issues, the Alaska group is a medical team. The women have collected donated AIDS medications and surgical equipment to carry over to the village clinics. Each will carry two suitcases, one with personal items and one filled with medical supplies.

Duncan explained that the supplies could be shipped to Africa, but would have to go through the Port of Johannesburg where, due to the extreme need in the area, food and medical items often disappear before making it to the villages.

"It's better to get a bunch of people to go and bring suitcases full of supplies," she said.

Once they arrive, the women will present a conference to help Swazi women deal with the AIDS epidemic overtaking their country, as well as other life issues. Swaziland is a predominately Christian country, but the combination of religious teachings and cultural traditions such as polygamy create friction.

The women also will volunteer in medical clinics, helping doctors and nurses care for the many sick and dying Swazi citizens.

"We're hoping to assist the doctors and nurses in whatever physical manner they need, whether it's scrubbing floors, washing bodies or holding babies," Duncan said.

The women also plan to spend some time at orphanages and prisons in the area.

They know the trip won't be easy.

For one thing, they'll be stepping into a completely different world and dealing firsthand with the epidemic ravaging Africa.

"I should warn you guys, by the end of the first day, you'll be exhausted and crying," Duncan told the women.

"It's hard for us to understand (the different culture)," Duncan said. "But it's not our place to be mad. We're going into their world, and we go in without judgment. We're there to serve them."

The women also have to deal with their own personal struggles. The timing of the trip means Duncan will miss the beginning of her daughter's journey to college. Nita Larson will miss her son's first day of kindergarten. Nichole Dreyer and Teresa Renney are facing opposition from their extended families, who worry about their safety and don't understand their need to go to Africa.

"The Bible says go into the nations, not just your backyard," Dreyer said.

And, the women have to come up with about $3,000 to pay for their air and ground transportation, food and shelter, not to mention the $700 worth of immunizations each one must receive before traveling to Africa.

Still, the women believe God is calling them to this mission and helping them along the way.

Dreyer, for example, said she feels the trip is something she must do to deal with her own past.

"My father died of AIDS," she said. "I helped hospice care for him when I was 15, but I felt robbed, I felt I could have done more.

"Through helping other people, I think I'll see his face."

Dreyer also said she struggles with the thought of leaving her three children behind for two weeks and with raising the money for the trip. But, she added, the day she decided to go to Swaziland, her husband got a $4 per hour raise.

"It's like God says, 'Good job, now watch this,'" she said.

For Larson, the trip also is a personal battle.

"One of the most important people in my life lives a lifestyle that puts him at high risk for AIDS," she said. "Every day I pray I don't get the phone call that he's sick."

She said she hopes the trip will help her reach out to people closer to home and to open her family's eyes to her faith.

"It's a testimony to my family," she said. "They're not Christians. To them, it's mind boggling that I would go to Africa to work with people who are dying."

Renney said she wasn't sure she was meant to go on the trip or if she could afford it, as her husband had been out of work for eight months. But, she said, one day in church she and other women who wanted to go but couldn't afford it were asked to come forward for prayer. Three days later, her husband was offered three different jobs.

"We're sacrificing," she said, explaining that her husband is working two jobs and she is working one to afford the mission. But, she said, she believes God wants her to go.

"I touch people every day (in my job), but I wanted to do more," she said. "This is stretching me. God's working in my life, showing me chance is important."

Though the trip is a faith-based mission, Duncan said she also hopes it will be a community effort. The women had planned a car wash Saturday to raise money for the trip and are planning a silent auction Friday. They also have placed pink plastic piggy banks in businesses throughout the central peninsula to accept donations. The pigs will be available until July 6, when they will be opened at a "Pig"nic at Peninsula Christian Center. Any money raised beyond the travel expenses will be given to the medical clinics to make much-needed structural repairs.

Duncan added, though, that the group isn't just looking for money from the community, but also heartfelt support.

Last time Duncan went to Swaziland, she presented three of the 10 queens with letters from the Soldotna and Kenai Peninsula Borough mayors, and she hopes to do the same this time.

"One of them said, 'Who am I that you think of me halfway around the world?'" Duncan recalled.

"There was a connection from our city to that country," she said. "We're ambassadors for the Kenai Peninsula. I hope we will represent the Kenai Peninsula very, very well and let the people know Americans do have a heart for other people."

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