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The World | COLUMN ONE

Bearing Witness to AIDS

On a continent that considers the disease a curse, HIV-positive clerics in Africa are speaking out and breaking stereotypes.

April 24, 2006|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

KAMPALA, Uganda — When it comes to buying condoms, Gideon Byamugisha prefers to dart in and out of the drugstore, leaving his car engine running for a quick escape.

But invariably, after watching a rattled clerk triple-bag his purchase or enduring disapproving glares from fellow customers, Byamugisha goes out and turns off the motor, returns to the store and tells his story.

"It's the collar," said Byamugisha, a canon with the Anglican Church of Uganda. "They look at me and think: Sin has gone deep when even a man in a collar is buying condoms."

Byamugisha assures the strangers that he is not a wayward pastor plotting an extramarital affair. Rather, he explains, he and his wife are both HIV-positive, and they don't want to infect each other with a different or stronger strain of the virus.

Judging by the confused looks he often receives, his well-intended explanations usually raise more questions than they answer.

Byamugisha, 47, was Africa's first openly HIV-positive cleric, going public in the mid-1990s. Now he is part of a small but growing network of infected religious leaders on the continent who are putting their lives, careers and sometimes their faith on the line by speaking out about their experience with the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS. In doing so, they hope to bust stereotypes about the disease and who can contract it.

This handful of mostly male religious leaders from various faiths is forcing some of Africa's biggest churches to confront a pandemic that many prefer to ignore. Disclosing one's HIV infection is still an act of considerable courage in a region known for religious conservatism and intolerance toward AIDS patients.

Twenty-five years after HIV was first identified, acquired immune deficiency syndrome is still a taboo topic in Africa. Few even whisper the name, calling it instead "the sickness" or "the curse." AIDS is more prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else. The region has 60% of the world's cases yet only 10% of its population. In some sub-Saharan nations, nearly one in three people tests positive for HIV.

Newspaper obituaries almost never mention AIDS, sometimes referring obliquely to a "bravely borne illness." Those living with the disease are branded as sexual offenders, adulterers or homosexuals.

AIDS patients who dare to disclose their status are routinely fired from jobs, abandoned by friends and family, driven out of villages and at times even killed.

In Kenya this month, a 15-year-old HIV-positive boy, whose parents and grandparents died of AIDS, was hacked to death by his only surviving relative, who had forced the boy to live in a chicken coop. In 1998, South African AIDS activist Gugu Dlamini was stoned to death by neighbors.

Religious institutions remain one of the biggest obstacles to encouraging safe-sex practices. Many churches in Africa, including the Roman Catholic Church, still condemn the use of condoms, even to prevent HIV infection. Only recently have Anglican leaders eased their stance on condoms.

Byamugisha recalled once preparing to take the stage at a revival when the host asked him what he planned to preach about. He said his testimony would be about surviving HIV.

Byamugisha recalled the fellow pastor asking him: God cured you? No, he replied, but I'm living as happily and spiritually as if I were cured.

So AIDS is still in your body? the man asked. Byamugisha nodded.

"That's not good testimony," the man said, pushing Byamugisha off the stage.

Only a few public figures in Africa have publicly acknowledged having the disease. A Ugandan singer disclosed his illness shortly before his death in 1985. Nelson Mandela announced that his son had been HIV-positive -- but only after the son died.

"We need more champions," said Warren Buckingham III, who runs the U.S. government's effort to fund AIDS programs in Kenya.

"That's why what [Byamugisha and others] are doing is so important," he said. "They speak a moral language. When a religious leader talks about being HIV-positive, myths about immunity get punctured."

The clergymen say the first stereotypes they had to break were their own. They and their churches once preached that the disease was a punishment from God and that condoms promoted promiscuity and infidelity.

"I thought AIDS was for prostitutes and truck drivers," said the Rev. Gibson Mwadime, 53, an Anglican vicar in southern Kenya who revealed his HIV-positive status last year.

Mwadime said learning about his diagnosis in 2001 was like a slap from God, spurring feelings of betrayal and anger.

"I lived a faithful life and my wife lived a faithful life," he recalled praying. "And then you bring this sinful disease upon us?"

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