HIV/AIDS – the view from Zimbabwe
October 24, 2003
Chimhungwe, who contributed information for the follow-up story in the November 2003 issue, is now teaching at the Mutare, Zimbabwe, School of Preaching.
“In addition to teaching, I am working as a volunteer with an AIDS Service Organization as the Christian Spiritual Counselor,” he told the Chronicle Oct. 13. “This work involves organizing prayer meetings every Friday, attending funerals of people who will have died of HIV/AIDS, providing pre- and post-testing counseling services, and bereavement counseling.
“In a nutshell this work involves ministering to spiritual needs of those infected with and affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic.”
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HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe, a small landlocked country situation in Southern Africa has been rocked by economic and political problems but HIV/AIDS has left unbelievable trail of destruction in every sector. Unfortunately, the church is now slowly reacting to this pandemic.
Currently it is estimated that about 25 percent of the population — 11.5 million — is HIV positive. With this high infection, the country is loosing about 700 people every week because of AIDS and cemeteries, especially in urban areas, are quickly filling up. The production age — 15-45 — and the infancy 1-6 age groups are the worst affected groups. This has had an impact on our health delivery system, it is estimated that 90 percent of the hospital bed occupancy is HIV/AIDS related.
Socially, HIV/AIDS has brought untold suffering to many families. Although, I have not yet lost an immediate family member, it is very rare to identify someone in Zimbabwe who has not lost an immediate or extended family member through AIDS. HIV/AIDS is now our disease. Usually after the death of both parents, AIDS Orphans are taken care of by their grandparents. In the absence of grandparents, some families end up staying alone in what are now termed orphan-headed-household-families. In these families, usually an elder teenage girl will be responsible for the economic fending of the family. In worst situations, which are common, some of these orphans end up living as street kids – a common feature in all our urban areas.
Mode of Transmission
In Zimbabwe, 92 percent of all our transmission is through heterosexual sex and our poor economic and cultural environments fuel this. Before 2000, Zimbabwe used to have the best infrastructure in Sub-Saharan-Africa, north of the Limpopo, in addition to being the breadbasket of Southern Africa. However, currently the country is reeling under the effects of drought and political instability. Therefore, commercial sex work is very rife, particularly along international roads where truckers frequent, aiding the spread of HIV. Culturally, it is “accepted” for men to have a mistress and many faithful women have been infected through their unfaithful husbands. Moreover, many children have been born HIV infected through such unions.
Church of Christ’s Response to HIV/AIDS
When HIV/AIDS was first discovered in the early eighties, it was associated with gays and drug addicts in the USA. Hence, all the mainline churches condemned People Living with HIV/AIDS (PLWA) as sinners. (This is the acceptable term used to identify any person suffering from HIV/AIDS. They are not called victims because a victim is a powerless person. PLWA are people living positively with HIV/AIDS). Many books and pamphlets were written condemning PLWA as sinners in addition to sermons, which encouraged the ostrasization of PLWA. Fortunately, some churches in the USA are no longer preaching negatively about HIV/AIDS.
Unfortunately, this is not the situation in Zimbabwe, if not the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa. Because our theological architects are in the USA, it takes decades before any theological change reaches Africa. We depend upon outdated information. Although, we now have more members of the churches of Christ in Africa, when compared to the USA, we do not have black African theologians in our fellowship. I do not think we have more than two, if any – I stand to be corrected – who have earned doctorates in theology or any biblical related subjects! Theologically, the churches of Christ in Zimbabwe generally condemn and ostracize PLWA.
However, the situation is slowly changing because nearly everybody is now feeling the impact of AIDS. Some congregations have started financially supporting orphan-headed-household-families, in addition to giving them moral support through counseling. Home-based care programs have been established with the help of churches in some communities. These are programs, which help families cope with challenges confronting PLWA who die in homes. Unfortunately, these programs require some basic pharmaceutical drugs and sanitization liquids, which are in short supply in the country.
But the most productive initiatives, which have been undertaken by the churches of Christ in Zimbabwe, are the Nhowe Mission AIDS Program, Rukweza Orphanage, and the Chiwero Mission, which is about to be started. Nhowe Mission, through the help of the East Point congregation in Wichita, Kansas and the Strathmore Congregation (I am not sure of the name but for years Vernon Boyd used to preach for this congregation) in Springfield, Michigan, have been subsidizing school fees for AIDS orphans.
Last year, Alvero do Santos, an outstanding member of the church and businessman in Mutare, helped establish an orphanage in Rukweza, 115 kms west of Mutare where about 50 orphans are housed. A similar project is going to be replicated at Chiwero Mission situated about 50 kms west of Harare. The Manicaland Drought Relief Committee, which is responsible for distributing financial contributions from Hillcrest Church of Christ, Abilene, Texas, has been helping AIDS widows and orphans in many congregations.
Responses from other Fellowships
Although, the church of Christ is now slowly positively responding to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, other fellowships have been in this field for more than a decade. For example, I worked for three years as Deputy Director: Finance and Administration at Family AIDS Caring Trust – Mutare (FACT Mutare), a Christian AIDS Service Organization (ASO). This organization was established in 1987, but became fully operation in 1991, by a group of preachers from different fellowships. It currently helps PLWA through professional counseling, home base care, youth activities, HIV testing, and positive living income generating activities. These efforts are financially supported by international church related organizations. This organization has spread its wings to other parts of the country like Chiredzi, Masvingo, Nyanga, and Rusape.
Although FACT Mutare, and may other ASOs work with and through churches in Zimbabwe, our fellowship — churches of Christ — is not involved because theologically we do not agree with them, yet we are doing very little.
Churches of Christ in USA
On the few occasions that I have been asked by some congregations to speak about AIDS in Zimbabwe, I found out, although it is difficult to generalize, that many people in our fellowship are not well informed about the extend of the disease in my country. First, this is contributed by lack of information coming from Zimbabwe. Very few prominent members of our fellowship are willing and have been articulating this problem to our sisters and brothers in the USA.
Second, historically HIV/AIDS has been associated with “sinners” and theologically our fellowship aims at those who are in “denominations” who are “lost.” Accordingly, PLWA are not part of our targets. Ironically, the church of Christ in Zimbabwe has spread fast among the marginalized: the poor, uneducated, women etc.
Since HIV/AIDS is a pandemic in Sub-Saharan Africa, I strongly urge both churches in the USA and Africa to work together in combating this problem. Although many people now know the dangers associated with HIV/AIDS, we should continue informing our members and the public about the magnitude of this problem. I am proposing that the Christian Chronicle start running articles periodically about this problem, if possible, zeroing on one or two African countries per month.
If churches in the USA could help finance the training and equipping of HIV/AIDS community health workers like counselors, trainers, and home based care givers, that will go a long way in reducing infections. Moreover, it will be profitable if all our preachers’ training schools could include a HIV/AIDS component in their curriculum. Maybe the World Bible School can produce a lesson about this disease.
It will go a long way if factual, as Africans we do not accept the monkey theory, pamphlets, posters and outlines can be produced in African languages and distributed to churches. I am convinced that if we jointly produce factual information we will save many souls. Along the same line, Africans need to take advantage of big gatherings like the annual Southern Africa Gospel Meeting, which was started in 1999 in Zimbabwe, where the following countries are always represented in big numbers: Botswana, Malawi, Swaziland, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, and discuss about HIV/AIDS. Last year, this meeting was held in Malawi and in May 2002 it will be held in Pretoria, South Africa.
Another international forum where AIDS can be discussed is the Africa Claiming Africa Conference (ACA). This conference was started in 1992 at Thuchi River Lodge, Kenya, and is held after every four years. The next conference will be in Accra, Ghana, during the first week of August 2004. I was shocked that very little was said about HIV/AIDS at the Jabulani Meeting in 2001.
Although I support the dissemination of HIV/AIDS information to and through our church members – this should be done in a positive manner. We should not condemn PLWA as sinners. Instead, we should start from where they are. This was Christ’s attitude towards those labeled sinners during his time. He called Levi from the tax collector’s booth and the Samaritan woman met Jesus Christ at the well. In like manner, we should meet PLWA where thy are. However, this does not mean we are not going to preach against sin; we should preach in love avoiding our usual “holier than thou attitude.”
HIV/AIDS is a pandemic disease in Sub-Saharan Africa; it is our disease, and the churches of Christ worldwide should increase their efforts by asking God for guidance in conquering this challenge. Those individuals and churches already involved should pray, fast, and meditate to God for more ways of helping us who are suffering the effects of HIV/AIDS.