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Churches join the war against Aids

After years as silent observers of a growing AIDS crisis that now threatens to decimate their congregations, church officials are taking a direct hand in prevention and mitigation efforts to stem the disease's deadly onslaught in Swaziland.
James Hall

"King Mswati last year worried that because of AIDS he might soon find himself without a people to lead. After another year filled with almost daily funeral services we must preside over, the country's preachers and priests are feeling the same worry as their king," Rev. Jabulani Dlamini of rural Luve said.

"If we can contribute to stopping AIDS, we have a moral duty to exert our moral authority in this task," said Rev. Nash Shongwe of the central commercial town Manzini, Swaziland's most populous urban centre.

Mainstream denominations have been organizing AIDS-related programs for years, realizing the extent of the problem even while most of the country was in deep denial.

The United Nation's AIDS programme, UNAIDS, recently published a report that listed Swaziland alongside Botswana as having the highest incident of HIV among its adult population, around 40 per cent.

"In Swaziland, the disease has reached devastating proportions," the UNAIDS report said.

Included in the discouraging statistics was the fact that half of adults in their twenties are HIV positive.

Government established a National Emergency Relief Committee on HIV/AIDS (NERCHA) to distribute funds, mostly originating from foreign donor organisations, to local groups dealing with AIDS prevention or mitigation. The committee commissioned surveys that projected by 2010 there will be 120 000 orphaned children under the age of 15 who lost both parents to AIDS.

Although few religious leaders care to speak of it, the attitude of mostfundamentalist churches, which are attended by a majority of Swazis, has been to ignore AIDS.

"If Swazis have been in denial, it is partly due to the apathy and denial of the churches," said Reverend Dlamini.

"People turn to the pulpit for direction, especially Swazis, because this is a spiritual country. If they receive no guidance, the vacuum is filled by superstitious practices or irresponsible behaviour," he said.

One such harmful practice that has flourished in recent years is the belief that by sleeping with a virgin, a man can be cured of AIDS. This has led to younger and younger girls entering into forced marriages, or falling victim to rape or incest.

"Swaziland's fundamentalist Christian sects are closely tied to traditional cultural practices, and they have been reluctant to speak out against marriages between older men and young girls because this has always been accepted practice in polygamous households, which are legal in Swaziland," said on church member from the southern Shiselweni region.

But because of AIDS' impact, reluctant church leaders are now distinguishing unions created in the name of culture, and those that are done in panic, in a superstitious pursuit of a non-existent AIDS cure. Organisations like the United Nations' Children's Fund (UNICEF) have publicized alarming information that girls are highly susceptible to HIV infections from forced sexual unions with HIV positive men.

"Rather than cure AIDS, the sexual liaison with a girl simply infects her," said a UNICEF source.

This message is now heard from the kingdom's pulpits. Churches are entering the AIDS containment battle with a type of "born again" fervor. "I learned that the best way to protect myself from AIDS is to abstain from sex. But if I have a sex partner, I must be faithful to him, and him alone," said Agnes Khumalo, a receptionist in Manzini who related the message she heard from her pastor at the First AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church in Kwaluseni.

"The pastor never mentioned sex before. We all paid attention when he did, because we knew it was important," she said. Some pastors argue that the most effective use of their positions is through preaching from the pulpit. But this has not hindered some new programmes from being initiated; programmes whose success depends on church participation.

The Alliance of Christian Artists in Swaziland (ACASWA) is presently halfway through a nationwide choral competition aimed at promoting child welfare issues, particularly AIDS. Two to three children's choirs from each of Swaziland's 300 chiefdoms are now participating to advance to local and then regional competitions. The enormous amount of coordination is undertaken by church volunteers.

"We are aiming at bringing orphans back into society. That's what the competition is all about, helping children," said Theodora Simelane, an ACASWA volunteer in Siteki, a regional capital near the Mozambique border.

Child-headed households are proliferating in Swaziland, under a policy favoured by humanitarian assistance groups and government to keep children in the homes they know, and provide them with food, material support and counseling, rather than warehouse them in institutions. The choir competition is a way to "socialise" these isolated children, and bring them back into a community of their peers. Meanwhile, they learn essential, life-preserving information like ways to avoid and report child abuse.

"The songs are all traditional gospel tunes, but we put in new words that relate to AIDS and child welfare matters," said Gloria Tsabezde, who directs a 20-member children's choir in Siteki.

The Roman Catholic diocese in Manzini opened "Hope House," a collection of brightly painted and airy homes for AIDS patients in the final terminal stages of opportunistic diseases.

"The compound allows for dozens of people to live out their final days in dignity. The environment contrasts with the shame and poverty they would otherwise face at their homesteads. We are trying to show that AIDS is a medical condition, and not a curse from God or the ancestors," said nurse Agnes Kunene of St. Theresa's clinic.

The clinic is located 50 metres from the complex, allowing swift response from nurses day and night. The innovative complex draws patients who are unable to attain hospice at home-like care. Home care is still Swazis' primary means of support for AIDS patients. Church groups are also ministering in these programmes.

"Swazi society is built around the family, but AIDS has put great pressure on families. Volunteers who are neighbours or from the area step in to perform the functions of relatives," said nurse Kunene.

AIDS deaths will accelerate as those who are HIV positive contract opportunistic diseases. Fortunately, antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) that allow HIV-positive people to live productive lives for years are being introduced into the country. The medical emergency will likely become more manageable, but will welcome the intervention of Swaziland's churches for moral guidance and down to earth assistance for some time to come.

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