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HIV/AIDS, malaria are connected, must be treated together, TEAM conference told

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
3/12/2007
[Episcopal News Service]  HIV/AIDS and malaria must be fought with education, openness and better access to medical care, four speakers told the Towards Effective Anglican Mission (TEAM) conference on the sixth day of its eight-day meeting in Boksburg, South Africa.

All four speakers discussed the role the church can play in the battle, and all called for greater openness on the part of faith-based communities.

Nomusa Njoko, one of the first women to disclose her HIV-positive status in South Africa, began the morning with a powerful testimony about her experience. "I am not proud to be HIV-positive but I am not ashamed." she said. "I am a proud Zulu woman. I am the pride of my nation."

Dr. Peter Okaalet, of MAP International, said "AIDS pits morality against science."

Despite all the workshops and conferences held about HIV/AIDS, something is lacking, said Olaposi Abiola of Nigeria's One Village Foundation, explaining that his organization hopes to "harness the youth potential."

Peter McOdida, the Kenya officer for International Medical Corps, said, "When we think about HIV/AIDS, let's think about malaria and when we think about malaria, let's think about HIV/AIDS."

Njoko moved conference participants with her story. She declared that she was an asset to her community, not a liability or a statistic.

"I am not a number. I'm a woman. I'm a mother. I'm a daughter. "I'm a member of the community," she said.

Njoko said she did not choose HIV; it chose her so she cannot be "criticized or crucified" for her status, which she learned on November 25, 1994 when she was 22 and the mother of a now-14-year-old son.

After her diagnosis, she was criticized and ostracized, she said, "simply for having a disease that nobody was talking about."

"Nobody had taught me anything about it," she said, adding that when she told her boyfriend about her diagnosis, his response showed her that he had known he was HIV-positive but had not told her.

Njoko said she was asked to leave her church choir and was rejected by her church "because I had sinned against God; because I was dirty in God's eyes."

She roundly criticized the church's attitude toward people with HIV/AIDS. She said that friends with the disease say that "the church is the last place I would go and disclose my HIV status." If the church does accept people with HIV, they are treated only as sinners, she said.

"In terms of services, it's shameful when it comes to the church," Njoko said. Churches offer HIV/AIDS services to people who are not members of their congregations but "our response would be different" if church members saw HIV/AIDS sufferers in their congregations.

"As a church, we [have the attitude that] we are coming to save those sinners," she said. "We have to challenge our attitude" and commit to some "spiritual introspection" about what the church does and does not do.

She criticized the church for requiring people to tithe to be members, and she criticized priests and pastors for expecting to be served by their people rather than to serve them.

When the woman doctor told her she was HIV-positive, she told Njoko to go get right with God, assuming that Njoko's life was not then right with God.

"God knows how much I love him but I don't want to see him so soon," she said, articulating a strong reliance of the assurance of God's love in the years since her diagnosis.

"What has kept me going are his promises," she said. "Sometimes people change their minds; God never changes his mind."

"God loves me as much as God loves you," she told the TEAM participants.

She said the stigma of HIV/AIDS in South Africa has changed, not gone away. Now people can be "very diplomatic" on the surface and in public, but behind closed doors there is still prejudice. It doesn't help at times for people to see her when she is healthy, said Njoko, a small and striking woman. When she was recently in the hospital, people came to see if she was going to die, wondering why, if she is HIV-positive, she hasn't died.

"I am not the face of AIDS because if HIV looks like me -- damn -- it looks good," she said.

Njoko called for the church and other agencies not to focus only on prevention and terminal care. During the time in between "there is great silence," but that is the time when many HIV-positive people could be helped to be productive members of their communities and resources in efforts to reduce HIV/AIDS.

"When we exclude that community, we are taking away from the solution," she said.

Njoko, who is a singer, ended her testimony by singing "He Knows," bringing TEAM participants to their feet to clap and sway to the music.

Okaalet said that "it makes my heart miss a beat" to hear of the church's rejection of people with HIV/AIDS such as Njoko. He urged conference participants to remember that Jesus accepted the marginalized and those whom society rejected. "Are we following the same Jesus?" he asked. And people must remember that AIDS "cannot invade the soul" or "reduce eternal life."

"Our greatest enemy is despair," Okaalet said.

He agreed with Njoko's call to include HIV-positive people in prevention efforts. "They need to be active partners -- not passive recipients of our services," he said.

"It's [about] trying to stop doing things for people and do things with people," he said, and to give them ways to do things on their own.

"We need to collaborate, collaborate, collaborate" with many partners, he said.

Abiola said One Village Foundation plans to release a CD of music focused on HIV/AIDS prevention on May 24 as part of the 24th Annual International AIDS Candlelight Memorial. He said that music is another way to connect with young people --and people of all ages -- to get across the messages of HIV/AIDS prevention.

The CD, which will feature reggae, hiphop, highlife, fuji music and juju, is a way to "look beyond that present way of campaigns against HIV/AIDS."

Most young people in the world have access to media and music players, he said, noting that musical celebrities get listened to when they are enlisted to speak out about various causes.

McOdida told conference participants that between the time they had Eucharist March 12 and the time of their lunch, 900 children -- roughly double the size of the conference --will have died of malaria. Yet, he reminded the conference, malaria does have a treatment and a cure.

The two diseases interact in ways that increase the infection and mortality rates of both, he said.  However, "HIV has killed fewer people than malaria in Africa today," he said, noting that HIV gets the headlines and the program emphasis.

Part of the challenge is getting the message of prevention out, he said, recalling that when he was child and showed symptoms of malaria, he never heard about the disease in church. "The church in Africa is essential" in getting the word out about how to prevent malaria, McOdida said, but churches and congregations are "feeling the pinch" of the financial losses that malaria causes. He said malaria in sub-Saharan Africa is estimated to cost US$12 billion a year and hold back much-needed development.

More than 400 people from 30 of the Anglican Communion's 38 provinces are attending the March 7-14 TEAM conference to review the Communion's response to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and how the church can do more as one of the world's largest grassroots development networks. The TEAM conference is in part a follow up to the first-ever pan-Anglican conference on HIV/AIDS, which was hosted by Cape Town Archbishop and Primate Njongonkulu Ndungane in Boksburg in 2001.

The conference is also meant to "encourage a prophetic articulation for an Anglican theology which supports witness and action for social justice."

More information about TEAM is available at the conference website. Continuing ENS coverage is available here.