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Encountering God in The Margins

Reflections of a Justice Volunteer

Author(s): Aidan Donaldson

ISBN13: 9781847302205

ISBN10: 1847302203

Publisher: Veritas

Extent: 224 pages

Binding: Paperback

Size: 21.4 x 13.8 x 2 cm

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  • Encountering God in the Margins takes the reader into theworld of the marginalised ­­– the slums, villages and other abandoned spaces in the undeveloped world – and allows their story to be told through the incidents, images, sounds and smells that the author has encountered and experienced. The book is an attempt to restore a voice to the voiceless through allowing them to share their life, their hopes, fears and struggles.

  • Aidan Donaldson

    Dr Aidan Donaldson is Assistant Head o f Religious Education and Chaplain at St Mary's Christian Brothers' Grammar School, Belfast. He previously lectured in the Department o f Scholastic Philosophy at Queen's University, Belfast, and in the Diocese o f Down & Connor Junior Seminary at St Malachy's College, Belfast. He also currently works in support o f Edmund Rice International in Geneva on the issue of advocacy for the marginalised and dispossessed. He lives in Belfast.

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    I was seventeen years old when I first went into a leper hospital and held in my arms a man with leprosy. He wept so did I. So said John Allen, a final-year student in Drogheda CBS who had been on an immersion experience in India. This young man is unlikely to ever forget this moment; it was potentially a life-changing experience, a religious conversion.

    When God became a human being, God did not come as a powerful king who could command allegiance, nor as a respected religious leader who could inspire millions to follow him. Instead, God became a suffering victim of religious and political oppression. In that human being, hanging on the cross, unjustly condemned to death, God was to be found.

    This book is about finding God. It reminds us that we cannot find God in our churches, in our tabernacles, unless we first find God in those human beings who are suffering and marginalised by the political, economic, social and sometimes religious oppression of today. It reminds us that we cannot worship God with hymns and incense unless we first worship God in the broken bodies of those whom society ignores. It is a modern-day retelling of the words of the prophet Isaiah, unheeded in our time as in his:

    What are your endless sacrifices to me?
    Says Yahweh, I am sick of holocausts of rams and the fat of calves
    Bring me your worthless offerings no more
    You may multiply your prayers, I shall not listen
    (Isaiah 1:11-15)

    Is not this the sort of fast that pleases me
    To break unjust fetters
    And undo the thongs of the yoke.
    To let the oppressed go free
    And break every yoke,
    To share your bread with the hungry,
    And shelter the homeless poor.
    (Isaiah 58:6-7)

    The supreme act of obedience by Jesus to his Father was his total self-giving on the Cross for the sake of his brothers and sisters. This book challenges the followers of Jesus to ask: Why, when the Christian community, in millions of Churches around the world, at every moment of every day of every year, remembers, re-enacts, in its Eucharistic celebration, this act of total self-giving by its leader, Jesus, does the exploitation, suffering and exclusion of millions of human beings in our world, and in each of our nations and communities, continue to exist?

    God is surely outraged at the unnecessary suffering inflicted on so many of Gods own beloved children, suffering caused by the greed and abuse of power by others. But if God is outraged, we, the disciples, have lost our sense of outrage. The destitution of many in far off countries, the homelessness of many at home, the exploitation of people and their resources for the benefit of a privileged few, the death of countless children from starvation and easily preventable disease, the use of children as labourers or sex workers and the political and economic structures that condemn those people to poverty, marginalisation and early death no longer outrage us. We have lost our sense of outrage because we have lost our sense of God. The biblical God of liberation and fulfilment, revealed in Jesus Christ, has been replaced by a God of the Temple, to be worshipped with songs of praise in the quiet and comfort of our hallowed Churches, without having to be worried about what is happening in the world outside the walls. Jesus himself has become someone to be adored in the tabernacle, rather than someone to be followed and imitated in his selfgiving. The God who spoke through the prophets, challenging, making people and rulers uncomfortable and demanding justice, has been silenced in our time.

    I doubt that anyone reading this book can be unmoved at the stories of poverty and suffering they tell. What screams from these pages is the unfairness of it all. We cannot avoid comparing the life we live, with its superfluities and comforts, with the lives of many others who live in poverty, often on the edge of destitution. Life for them need not be like this, should not be like this. This book tells stories of people who have given their lives and sacrificed their comforts to make life for others a little more endurable. They have heard the cry of the poor, a cry which calls for action, which demands a response. Those who have responded do not complain about the inaction of the rest of us or of political leaders; they are simply so busy, so absorbed in the work that they do that they have no time to whinge. But they have every right to do so, because we have failed, not just them, but those they serve.

    This book is about the experience of immersion, that leap of faith into the dark which brings people into the communities and lives of others living on the edge. The motivations for taking such a jump into the unknown may have been unclear and varied. Some may have gone to have a good time, others may have thought they were going to save the world, but few came back unchanged. They went to give, and they did indeed give something, but they received far more than they could ever give. Those living in poverty and in the margins had something to give them that MasterCard could never buy. Like that man hanging on the cross, ignored, laughed at, despised by all who passed by, they revealed the face of God to those who had eyes to see.

    The immersion experience is not one for those who are attached to their comforts , physical or psychological. It challenges our lifestyle, it questions us on the meaning of our lives, and it can, if we let it, draw out of us everything that is best in a human being, a spirit of self-sacrifice that our sense of solidarity with the oppressed and exploited requires from us. We become, then, a true follower of that man hanging on the cross.

    Fr Peter McVerry SJ


    Through love we can open ourselves in such a way to God and others that we completely empty ourselves and fill ourselves in the same proportion with the reality of others and God. It is precisely this that occurred in the case of Jesus Christ. In other human beings, sisters and brothers of Jesus, we have received from God and Jesus the same challenge: to open ourselves more and more to everything and to everybody so that we can be the fullness of divine and human communication like Christ.

    Approximately a decade ago, the Christian Brothers Leadership Team in Ireland invited its schools to participate in a new initiative called the Developing World Immersion Programme. This initially involved senior school students and members of staff trying to establish bonds of fraternal solidarity and mutual love with some of those for whom life is a struggle against poverty, injustice and oppression. In many ways, the immersion programme is an invitation to go to the missions and become disciple. Over the past years, many within the Edmund Rice Network have been going off to work with and be with some of the poorest and most marginalised communities in Latin America, India and Africa. I started my African journey some seven years ago as part of our schools (St Marys Christian Brothers Grammar School) response to the invitation to go to the margins and become immersed. It was only in the slums of Lusaka and the surrounding villages in Zambia that I came to understand what being immersed truly means. Immersion does not mean being a visitor or dropping into a community to engage in some sort of charity work or volunteer tourism, which has become so fashionable in the West today. Immersion is about justice, it is about standing in radical solidarity with the dispossessed, marginalised and ignored communities who are kept in crushing poverty by a global economic and political system so that some , especially us in the affluent Western world , can live in opulence. Immersion is about becoming an advocate on behalf of these victims of injustice. It is about being the voice of the voiceless. It is about coming to know the names of the marginalised so that you can truly become their voice, just as they have become our voice of introduction to their communities in the so-called Developing World. Immersion is about leaving your comfort zone, unplugging yourself from the matrix and seeing the world the way it truly is, not just the world of consumerism filtered through to us by a dehumanising, stultified diet of the mass media, advertising and reality television.

    The comfort zone I left was Belfast. As a teacher of Religious Education at St Marys CBGS, I was always intrigued by the unconditional response of the early disciples to the invitation by the young rabbi walking by the Sea of Galilee to come, follow me. When the invitation to go to witness the missions for myself was extended to me by my then principal, Kevin Burke, I did not jump at it with the enthusiasm of the Galilean fishermen or of Matthew the tax collector. A mixture of cynicism, a (natural) reluctance to leave my comfort zone and uncertainty and fear did not make me an ideal early recruit. Yet, with prompting from Kevin and after listening to stories from others who had been on immersion, I found myself boarding a plane to Lusaka, into the yet-to-be discovered world of immersion. The slums and townships of Misisi, Kamwala and Kabwata, as well as the villages of Old Kabweza and Mapepe, now feel like places of belonging and, paradoxically, places of hope, friendship and, above all else, love. The immersion programme that began at St Marys has now grown to become a much larger justice organisation involving parishes, community groups, other schools and many individuals from wide and diverse backgrounds, including different social, religious, cultural and spiritual outlooks: Project Zambia. In the same vision and energy of the Christian Brothers Developing World Immersion Programme, Project Zambia goes to the above named and other communities to become part of a living movement of mutual affirmation, a celebration of our common humanity and Godgiven dignity. It is a witness against a world order that celebrates greed over sharing, profit over need, materialism over spirituality, individualism over community, destruction over care, death over life and injustice over justice. In short, immersion is about revolution. It is about placing people and love and justice and freedom at the centre of the world and standing with those who have been made victims of injustice, poverty, oppression and neglect by the powerful, the rich and those who simply do not care.

    For many people, Africa can appear to be a place without hope of transformation or improvement, never mind salvation. Despite the enormous sums of aid and charity directed at the Third World in general and Africa in particular, it seems that nothing changes. The standard Western view of African society is that endemic and systematic corruption, along with incompetence and a serious lack of work ethic, has selfcondemned Africa to the dreadful state that persists there. For some, Zambia may well be a case in point. A huge country (almost ten times the size of Ireland) with an exceptionally young population (in a total of approximately eleven million people) and blessed with a climate, soil and rivers that could provide as much maize as could feed all of southern Africa. Yet, instead of being self-sufficient, or even wealthy, Zambia is one of the poorest countries in the world today and it is getting poorer. According to the UNHCR, the average life expectancy in Zambia in 2004 was 32.4 years.2 This is almost twenty years less than the average life expectancy in Zambia some four decades ago, as is the case with every country in sub-Saharan Africa. Given that the HIV/AIDS pandemic is still rising in Zambia, this figure of life expectancy will continue to drop, as will the number of orphans rise. Currently, almost one million children in Zambia are orphans. When the grandparent carers die , many of whom we work along with in Mapepe and Misisi , another issue will have to be faced: orphan-led households. If this is not bad enough, 80 per cent of Zambians are living on one US dollar a day.

    It is little wonder that some of us in the affluent world go into a cant do anything so dont care mode. Others of us go into charity mode , Africa is a sick child and a problem that needs our help and support. Both attitudes are equally wrong and fatally flawed. The former, to do nothing, is a natural surrender and acquiescence to the individualism and egoism of the consumerist world of affluence that characterises and defines much of the West. The latter suggests that Africa is a self-made problem or natural disaster that needs to be fixed by the West. Nothing could be further from the truth. The crushing poverty and its consequences for the people of Africa is neither natural nor self-made. Poverty in the Third World is a crime deliberately committed by and sustained by the economic and political system that dominates all of our lives, whether we live in materially rich Western societies or in the impoverished margins where the vast majority of the population seek to survive. The poor and oppressed of Africa , and the other communities who live in the margins, be they in Latin America, Asia or in our own marginalised and invisible communities in Ireland and other countries in the so-called Developed World , need justice, not charity.

    I have been truly blessed in my time on immersion to meet and be touched by some of the most inspirational people God, in his infinite wisdom, could ever have placed me with. This book is simply a collection of true stories, reflections, responses and dialogues, which are a result of one immersion volunteers experiences in Africa. The names of the places and of the individuals may seem strange or unfamiliar to the reader at first; they were to me also. I have come to know, embrace and love all of these people and spaces. They have become family to me, just as the places have now taken on a sense of closeness, of identity, of being at home with oneself and others , what Germans call Heimat , a sense of perhaps what Jesus encouraged us to build throughout his teachings and through his actions: the Kingdom of God. Immersion has given this pilgrim an opportunity to encounter many remarkable people and experience emotions and face challenges of a unique nature. For that I am truly grateful.


    Our Topsy-Turvy World The world we live in is a very strange place indeed. It is, in fact, an upside down world that needs to be revolved. The world needs a revolution , and so do we. However, before the reader panics, becomes fearful, dismissive or just bored and thinks that he/she is about to enter the clich?®d and infantile considerations of a social revolutionary harking back to an imagined revolutionary era, please give me a little time to explain my case. The world we live in is indeed a peculiar, contradictory and confusing place: fabulously rich yet incredibly poor; technologically advanced and knowledgeable on the one hand, yet committing environmental suicide on the other; able to transport millions of holiday-makers to far-off destinations and hedonistic paradises every day, while unable (read unwilling) to send some of the surplus food in the affluent Western world to feed those who are starving in the Developing World. By the way, if you need to impose a war on people in some far off country, dont panic. It seems that in todays world there is no shortage of materials to use in conflict. After all, the arms industry is the single biggest industry in the world with over a trillion US dollars being spent on weapons annually. We may not be surprised at this, but we should be shocked, disgusted and angered. Former US president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, pointed out the real effects the arms trade has on humanity when he stated the following in a speech on 16 April 1953:

    Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, and the hopes of its children This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

    Modern society does not have any difficulty in finding that other crucial commodity for making war: disposable humans and other victims without whom such lucrative activity could not take place. Nor does modern society have moral qualms when it comes to dealing with the rather awkward issue of civilian deaths, simply reclassifying such killings as collateral damage.

    This term of military doublespeak, which is defined by the USAF Intelligence Targeting Guide as [the] unintentional damage or incidental damage affecting facilities, equipment, or personnel, occurring as a result of military actions directed against targeted enemy forces or facilities. Such damage can occur to friendly, neutral, and even enemy forces, first emerged in the Vietnam War and has subsequently become almost an accepted description in (at least) much of the US media when describing the killing of men, women and children in the Iraq and Afghan conflicts. The United States Department of Defense has given a very clear codified version of what is a chilling demonstration of how such language negates the human dignity of those who are on the receiving end of collateral damage. According to Joint Publication 3-16, collateral damage is [the] unintentional or incidental injury or damage to persons or objects that would not be lawful military targets in the circumstances ruling at the time. Such damage is not unlawful so long as it is not excessive in light of the overall military advantage anticipated from the attack. Nor is such a term unique in the vocabulary of the powerful who seek to deny recognition of basic humanity to the powerless. Those countries in abject poverty are referred to as the Developing World as if they are progressing or moving forward in some way, whereas clearly they are being moved precisely in the opposite direction! Globalisation , one of the major causes of poverty , is presented as a solution to the problems of the poverty-stricken countries. Structural adjustment mechanisms and other so-called developmental policies are put into place by rich governments to enslave and ensnare the poor countries even more. It is little wonder that we need to stand the world the right way up.

    Where does immersion come into all of this? Quite simply, to become immersed is to say no to the way the world is and begin to create a new world built not on injustice, greed, individualism and passivity, but rather a world based on justice, community, solidarity, action and love of the other. In short, immersion is to help the world stand the correct way up. To allow oneself to become immersed in the margins is to abandon and reject the power structures and social practices that keep the Third World poor and oppressed, and to become part of something much bigger, infinitely more intelligent and rational, and certainly more real, necessary and true than anything the false world we live in can ever offer. Immersion is nothing less than building the Kingdom of God.


    On 21 December 2001, I popped into the office of Kevin Burke, the principal of St Marys Christian Brothers Grammar School. It was the last day of term and the staff were getting ready to go out for Christmas lunch. I knew that Kevin had wanted to have a word with me , something about some new Christian Brothers initiative, apparently. As the school co-ordinator of Edmund Rice activities, I had worked closely with Kevin and many others throughout the school community and the Edmund Rice Network in promoting the vision of Blessed Edmund and the radical social practice that emanates from it. I wondered what the latest venture would be. A youth conference? Perhaps some local outreach programme? Maybe a new journal or other publication to be disseminated throughout the school? However, it was nothing quite as normal or straightforward as that. He suggested that I might go to Africa.

    Kevin, it is a total waste of money and time and I am not going. Our school should not touch this nonsense with a forty-foot barge pole! I was reacting to Kevins suggestion that our school should become involved with the Christian Brothers immersion programme. I had heard of this programme from the involvement of another local Christian Brothers school (Glen Road Christian Brothers College), which had sent a group of students and staff to India a year previous. The thinking behind the immersion programme is that by encouraging people from affluent parts of the world to go to the undeveloped world and immerse themselves with communities there, participants will develop bonds of mutual friendship, partnership and solidarity with the host communities, as well as come to a deeper understanding of the causes and effects of poverty and injustice. I was entirely sceptical of such ventures. For me, and many others I am sure, the idea of a bunch of people, many with no particularly relevant contributory skills, travelling from Ireland to an impoverished community somewhere in the Third World smacked of poverty tourism and misguided goodwill, with a touch of paternalistic arrogance and voyeurism. Not only that, it also struck me as a distinct waste of valuable money, which could be spent on helping people rather than on airfares and other expenses. If a school wants to help poor people in the Third World, they should raise a lot of money and send it all out to the people there, was my considered reaction.

    Kevin noted my concerns and went on to explain that the Christian Brothers felt that it was important for our schools to go to the margins, to demonstrate solidarity with the poor and oppressed, to show the people there that they have not been abandoned and forgotten but that they are valued, to witness to the Gospel and to make a difference. Kevin went on to inform me that it had been proposed to extend the immersion process to include Africa, with Zambia as a starting point, and that St Marys CBGS had been selected as one of the first cohort of schools to be invited. He was asking me to go on an inspection trip in the following June on behalf of the school to assess the feasibility and value of such a venture. Besides, he said, if you find that it is a waste of time, energy or resources then bring that back in your report and we will simply the project.

    There was no getting out of it and, anyway, it would take me no time at all to get the conclusive evidence I would need to tell Kevin, the Board of Governors, the Christian Brothers Leadership Team and anyone else promoting such ventures that, at best, they were misguided or, at worst, it was self-indulgent nonsense which raised false hopes among the host communities and reinforced a patronising attitude and relationship both in Ireland and in Africa. Little did I know just how little I knew!

    The next months consisted of an intensive series of meetings, enculturation sessions, medical briefings, injections and all other preparations deemed necessary for people going to Africa for the first time. If one could become an expert on going to the Third World through reading and listening, I was that expert. We were informed that the immersion site for St Marys CBGS and Monkstown CBS would be Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. Unlike the other schools from Ireland who were going to look at already existent Christian Brothers mission programmes in places such as Livingstone, Mazabuka, Kabwe, Mongu and Mufulira, we would have to identify immersion programmes in Lusaka ourselves, since the Christian Brothers did not have any schools, orphanages or other projects in Lusaka. Their presence there was very an invitation to immersion much of an administrative nature. That didnt concern me very much since I was absolutely certain that there were bound to be lots of impoverished communities in Lusaka who (in my Western mentality) spent their entire lives in fervent hope and prayer that salvation might arrive in the guise of some white outsiders to save them. Besides, it would be a waste of time anyway, wouldnt it?

    Encountering the fruits of immersion for the first time

    The first awareness I experienced that immersion just might not be quite the waste of time that I was sure it would be hit me at a preparation meeting in early 2002 in Dublin. The meeting was a gathering of all those who were going to Zambia that year for their inspection visit and a chance for us to share our hopes, fears, expectations, ideas and so on. The closing session was given by a young man called John Allen, a final year student from Drogheda CBS, who had been on immersion in India the previous year. What could a fresh-faced eighteen-year-old boy tell me about the world, life or anything?

    I was seventeen years old when I first went into a leper hospital and held in my arms a man with leprosy. He wept so did I. The hairs on the back of my neck still stand up when I think of the opening remark from that remarkable young man. He then went on to outline his experiences and how encountering those in the margins changed him, transformed him, energised him. This was not some pious claim from an innocent, na?»ve youth, rather it was an accurate statement of fact. Within this young man , as well as in his fellow immersion travellers whom we met that day , there was something that was different, new and, above all else, alive. Of course they were still ordinary young guys in the sense that they still possessed the normal trappings of modern society , mobile phones, iPods, the normal interests of young people and so on , but the focus or centre of their lives seemed to have had a paradigm shift. I now know what is important in life and want to live my life accordingly, was how John Allen put it. And he said it like he meant it.

    I pondered on the notion of metanoia, that concept of transformation that lies at the heart of much of Christian hope. Coming from the Greek ?Áetóóa for repentance, metanoia, as it is used in the New Testament, has a deeper and more fundamental meaning. It involves not merely regret of past sin but a recognition by man of a darkened vision of his own condition, in which sin, by separating him from God, has reduced him to a divided, autonomous existence, depriving him of both his natural glory and freedom and a desire to be transformed. To repent is to have a change of heart, a spiritual about-face in ones life. Repentance involves both a change of mind and a change of action, a change that occurs in relationship to God. The account in Acts of the Apostles of The Coming of the Holy Spirit can be seen as a clear and dramatic example of precisely such a transformation and conversion:

    When the day of Pentecost came, all the believers were gathered in one place. Suddenly there was a noise from the sky which sounded like a strong wind blowing, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.
    Then they saw what looked like tongues of fire which spread out and touched each person there. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit.
    (Acts 2:1-13)

    Thus, a group of frightened, uncertain and passive individuals became totally transformed, energised and alive and went out to proclaim the Gospel.

    There was something in those young men at that meeting which reminded me of that Gospel story. I had just met a group of young men who were prepared to share their story and to speak about their experience of transformation, and decidedly not in the style of evangelical witness. Rather, they did it naturally, as if through their honest account of what they encountered at the margins and who they had become as a result of this experience might be of interest to us: people who were preparing to go to that precious space for the first time. They did not put any special words on it but, reflecting back now, I feel that I was being invited to enter into immersion, to become disciple. Could I catch the flame that had so obviously sparked them to become alive, passionate and aware? Did I want it? Could I handle it? The answer awaited me in Zambia.

    First immersion experience: the beginning of my education

    Armed with every immunisation and injection recommended and with the firm conviction that I was right about the validity or otherwise of immersion, in spite of the doubts that the encounter with John Allen had placed in my mind, I arrived at Lusaka International Airport on a warm morning encountering god in the margins in the middle of June, along with the other teachers from Ireland, as we set about our respective immersion inspection visits. The first thing that struck me, both in the airport and on the way to the hostel where I would be staying, was that Lusaka did not look like a modern capital city. The crumbling fa?ºade of the main arrivals building and the fact that there were only about seven or eight flights per day, as well as the potholes on the main road going into the city, suggested to me that this place had seen better days. On the way into Lusaka, I noticed that rubbish abounded everywhere, that council workers (mostly women) were brushing the everpresent dust off the roads (as the wind kept blowing it back) and that there were people cycling to the markets in the city defying the laws of gravity with enormous loads of charcoal or vegetables impossibly tied to their bikes. One other thing I noticed was that all along the red dusty road into Lusaka there were men running. As an athlete myself (a former marathon runner), I presumed that Zambia was like Kenya, where long-distance running was a way of life and a way out of poverty. But these guys were different. They wererunning to somewhere, with purpose in suits! I asked Br John McCourt (a Christian Brother of many years in Africa who had picked us up at the airport) what they were doing. Trying to get work, was his reply. Elaborate, I thought. And he did. You see, Aidan, there is practically no permanent paid work for the vast majority of the population in Zambia, so these men have to set off from their homes before dawn to try to get their daily bread. They cannot afford the minibus to Lusaka so they have to run and hope that they can get work in Lusaka. They will have to do the same thing tomorrow and the next day. If they fail then their families do not eat. I watched as men in their best (only decent) clothes ran alongside us , trying, sweating and smiling. I thought of the line in the Lords Prayer, give us this day our daily bread.

    After a days orientation in Lusaka, the group split up with most of the other teachers heading off to familiarise themselves with their immersion sites in various parts of the country. My immersion colleagues and I left to try to identify potential immersion projects in and around Lusaka. Br John McCourt was our immersion partner, who proved to be invaluable in introducing us to some truly amazing people, whose lives have now indeed become immersed with our own.

    The remarkable Angela Miyanda

    If anyone epitomises true Christian love or agape , that other-directed selfless giving , then Angela Miyanda is surely that person. The wife of Godfrey Miyanda, the former deputy president of Zambia, leader of the HeritageParty and, in many peoples judgement, one of the only noncorrupt, honest politicians in a country where corruption in politics is almost a given, Angela is one of the most unassuming, dignified and inspirational people I have ever had the privilege to meet. She pointedly refuses to use her husbands profile and contacts to support her own work with orphans, HIV/AIDS victims, refugees and other marginalised and poor people. For Angela, the validity and justification of the work she is doing is of
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