Scott Stearns | Dakar 13 April 2010
While Ghana has one of Africa's lowest HIV infection rates, prejudice and poverty compound the difficulties facing those who have the virus that causes AIDS. One Christian ministry that is helping those living with HIV/AIDS.
Monsignor Bobby Benson began the Matthew 25 Ministry in 1998 after meeting an AIDS patient in the United States.
It is based near Ghana's eastern city of Koforidua in a region with one of the country's highest HIV infection rates. In the years since, Benson's center has helped hundreds of patients and is currently home to 70 people with HIV/AIDS.
"Word goes round, they are referred to this house by the hospitals and laboratories," said Benson. "Once a person is infected many a times the victim does not know where to go to, so they say go to Matthew 25 House."
The man known locally as Father Bobby says the center also helps children orphaned by the disease.
"A number of children have been left behind by HIV/AIDS patients so we take care of them," added Benson. "We have 98 children we are supporting in the house for the past 10 years. Two are finishing university and polytechnic this year."
Benson says AIDS patients who are still living on their own receive food from the center. Those who can no longer support themselves move in.
"We try to provide accommodation for those who cannot afford, we pay their medical bills, we pay their transport anytime they come to this house because most of them are not working," explained Monsignor Benson.
A 35-year-old mother of two who does not want her name used in this story says she tried to commit suicide when she learned that her husband died of AIDS and left her HIV positive.
After trying to poison herself, she says a nurse brought her to the Matthew 25 House. Eight years after testing positive, she is still alive. She says sometimes you leave home with a heavy heart, but when you get to Matthew 25 everything comes back to life in the support you get from counseling and from Father Bobby.
But she has still not disclosed her HIV status to her family because she says when people know you are HIV positive they do not want to come near you for fear that they too might become infected. She has not even told her sister because she is afraid her sister might reject her daughter if she knew.
Benson says prejudices against people with HIV/AIDS have frustrated efforts to supplement the donations that keep the center running. They have tried selling charcoal and sewing school uniforms.
"We also produce palm oil, but again we do not get market," said Benson. "Once people know it is produced by Matthew 25 they would not buy our oil. We have some in the warehouse right now. We also do funeral undertaking so we have two hearse services which the public comes to access. Most of our clients have learned how to produce tie-and-dye batik. But again we are not into production on a high scale because unless we get a market, or an organization says, 'Produce so much for us,' then we do it."
Benson says despite progress in lowering the country's HIV infection rate, Ghanian society has still not learned to accept that HIV-positive people can lead normal lives.
"What baffles me is that we buy all kinds of food items from the roadside. We do not know who is producing them. Somebody may be HIV positive, but we do not know, and we buy the food and enjoy it," noted Benson. "But as soon as you get to know a person is HIV positive you are afraid of the person. It is a pity the public is afraid of HIV, as if a person with HIV is the worse person under the planet. But they are human as we are. As for the stigma, it is still there. You will be surprised this very house we are sitting here is highly stigmatized, but we do not have a problem. We are still doing what we are doing."
When confronted with that stigma, Benson takes comfort in the Bible passage of Matthew 25 itself, in which the Lord says: "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."
Additional reporting by Ruby Amable in Ghana