From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Close Up: AIDS pandemic hits hardest in Africa

From NewsDesk <NewsDesk@UMCOM.ORG>
Date Tue, 29 Oct 2002 13:55:01 -0600

Oct. 29, 2002  News media contact: Linda Bloom7(212)870-38037New York

NOTE: Photographs and a World AIDS Day logo are available with this report.
A commentary, UMNS #499, is available as a possible sidebar. 

A UMNS Report
By Lesley Crosson*

Sub-Saharan Africa is dying, in part, because of a cultural taboo.

Cultural and religious traditions make talking to people about the HIV/AIDS
epidemic almost impossible because it is a topic so closely associated with
sexual behavior. Yet an estimated 28 million people are living with HIV/AIDS
in sub-Saharan Africa, and new cases are cropping up at an alarming rate.

"People are no longer dying of ignorance (of the causes of the disease). We
are now working on changing behaviors," says Tabitha Manyinyiri, the former
community health nurse at United Methodist-related Africa University in
Mutare, Zimbabwe.

It is ironic that Africa University is working so hard to produce future
leaders when many students have died or will die of the disease before they
can make a difference, Manyinyiri says.

"If they die five years after graduation or even before they can graduate,
where are our future leaders?" she asks. "We have a house on fire, and we
need to find a way to put out the flames."

In the face of this pandemic, the United Methodist Church is reaching beyond
the walls of its sanctuaries to offer spiritual and material comfort to
people who might otherwise suffer and die unattended. The spreading
devastation of HIVS/AIDS has given the church's education and relief efforts
a new urgency. 

World AIDS Day, observed Dec. 1, will focus attention on such efforts by
organizations around the globe - and the dire need that drives them.
Countering stigma and discrimination is the theme for World AIDS Day 2002.

A taboo topic 

The fight to control the spread of the disease and to provide spiritual and
material comfort to the afflicted and their families may be the largest
battle ever fought door to door, family to family. 

Despite the many workshops organized for youth and adults and the training
programs to sensitize pastors, the church still is working to break down
resistance to talking about HIV/AIDS. 

Caroline Njuki, a staff executive with the denomination's Board of Global
Ministries, remembers the extreme discomfort of a young United Methodist
pastor at a church in a Ugandan village where some 65 percent of the
worshipers are young people. Njuki, assigned at the time to the board's
HIV/AIDS initiative, explained to him that she had to address the issue and
asked if anyone had talked to the youth. 

"If the ground could have swallowed him, he would have been so happy to be
swallowed. It really mortified him," she says.

After the service, discussing HIV/AIDS with adult members of the church was
no less difficult. Njuki says the group looked "very uncomfortable" as she
gave them information about the disease. "Usually I say even more, but I
knew I shouldn't get carried away. Still, I had to let them know that if we
can't talk about this we are dead because first we must change what is
necessary and what is possible to change."

Njuki also left pamphlets and other information with the congregation and
directed members to other ecumenical resources.

During the past two years, the Board of Global Ministries has offered and
funded an ambitious ministry of education, health and relief concentrated in
Africa, where a full two-thirds of the world's 40 million reported
HIV/AIDS-infected people live. Work also is being done by conferences and
local churches in the United States and by students from Africa University.

The combined efforts are showing signs of success.

The board coordinates several HIV/AIDS initiatives through the United
Methodist Committee on Relief, the church's health and relief unit. The work
is supported with $250,000 in World Service funds. 

The money has helped pay for workshops, health supplies, pamphlets and
assistance to United Methodist hospitals, orphanages and families caring for
HIV/AIDS patients. Although the board provides resources and support,
Cherian Thomas, the agency's staff executive who directs the HIV/AIDS
initiative, notes that the actual work is being done at the local level in
places like Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Uganda and other severely affected

The children's plight

In Zimbabwe alone, it is believed that at least one-third of the country's
11.3 million people are HIV-infected. The National AIDS Council in Zimbabwe
estimates that more than 700,000 orphans in the country have lost one or
both parents to HIV/AIDS-related deaths.

The congregation of Inner City United Methodist Church in the capital city
of Harare is dealing with the human results of those statistics through its
ministry with families and children. Much of its work centers on caring for
children orphaned by AIDS. 

In a voice weighted with sadness, the Rev. Irene Kabete, district
superintendent for the Zimbabwe East Conference and pastor of Inner City
Church, says her congregation has lost "plenty" of members. "Now, we have
more orphans in the church because the father died and then in a few years
the mother died." 

About 40 young children between the ages of 7 and 16 come to services at the
church each Sunday. The children live in institutions and attend church
during the week. "We talk to them during lunch hour, and we are trying to
put them into homes. We are paying the fees for them to go to school,"
Kabete says.

Each Sunday, she adds, four or five new children show up needing the help.
"We ask our people to help find places for them to go to school, and we pay
the fees for them. Every few months, we collect food and clothing from our
parishioners, and then we send the clothing to the kids." The congregation
also welcomes street kids into its feeding program for soup and bread three
times a week. 

Some 3,000 children are confined to orphanages in the Zimbabwe countryside.
Africa University students assist by helping the orphans plant vegetable
gardens for nutritious meals, as well as by constructing housing and
teaching the youngsters income-producing skills, such as growing vegetables
for sale.

Several other orphanages are being built through a combination of ecumenical
church, non-governmental organizations and government efforts, according to
Peter O. Fasan, the board's HIV/AIDS consultant in Zimbabwe. He emphasizes,
however, that institutions "are really not the best way to look after these
children." Ideally, he says, all children should be cared for by relatives
and friends in their villages or homesteads. 

Some 1,500 Zimbabwe youngsters are cared for through the Uzumba Orphan
Trust, (United Methodist Advance No. 982842-6), which allows children
orphaned by AIDS to stay in their homes and receive regular visits from
trained caregivers. About 400 home caregivers in Zimbabwe have been trained
to help families caring for HIV/AIDS patients.

'Manna from heaven'

The material resources that appear to be having the most immediate effect
are the Healthy Homes and Healthy Families kits provided by UMCOR. Local
congregations in the United States donate the kits, which are supplemented
by medicines provided by Interchurch Medical Assistance. The kits contain
clean sheets, rubber gloves and other items to care for patients and to help
prevent the spread of the infection to caregivers. (More information is
available at
Interchurch Medical Assistance has shipped 250 of the kits to Sierra Leone
and 40 to Zimbabwe - a mere finger in the dike against the tidal wave of the
pandemic but one that has been invaluable to volunteer home caregivers.
Fasan says one "overjoyed" volunteer compared the kits to "manna from
heaven." Before the kits arrived, the volunteers had few or no few items to
leave with the families. 

Thomas reports that another 135 to 140 kits are in stock at Interchurch
Medical Assistance and will be shipped. The doctor urges local congregations
to contribute even more of the valuable kits.
The epidemic continues to take its heaviest toll on the continent of Africa,
where widespread communications and access to new drugs to treat the virus
are nearly non-existent. Through the combined efforts of the
non-governmental organizations, ecumenical organizations and governments, at
least some relief is increasingly available. 

While infection rates remain high, people are responding to those efforts.
It may be some time before evidence emerges of widespread changes in the
behavior responsible for spreading the disease, but the fear and reluctance
to confront it show signs of breaking down, one person at a time. 

"Many patients are terminally ill," Fasan says. "Death is inevitable. But
there's a general feeling that the care given to patients allows them to die
in dignity and with the knowledge that the church cares."

# # #

*Crosson is a writer living in New York City. She is a former staff member
of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. 

United Methodist News Service
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