The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee knows only one effective way to fight AIDS: embracing the whole community that you hope to serve.
Community is the backbone of many African cultures. AIDS has weakened this community by claiming the lives of doctors, teachers, pastors, husbands, wives, parents, and children.
People infected with HIV are often too weak to plow fields, fetch water, and care for children; others also are affected by the strain of caring for the sick and for AIDS orphans.
“CRWRC is convinced about helping the partners that have a holistic approach in development for the sake of sustainability,” says Canon Zacchaeus Masake, regional development manager for the Anglican Church of Kenya, a CRWRC partner.
“That means that any approach to development must be ‘bottom up’; it must be originated from the community itself and it must address the needs of the community.”
Kevin Wanyani, 27, a young resident of Sichei village in Western Kenya, supported his seven younger siblings after his parents died. “When my parents were sick, they spent a lot of money on treatment,” he explains. “Then when they passed away, we were left with very little; enough only to pay the school fees for my brothers and sisters.”
Wanyani says he felt hopeless. Then one day CRWRC staff paid him a visit. “They talked about HIV/AIDS . . . and also provided seed, food, clothing and even firewood,” he says. “That helped me provide for the family.”
He learned to grow and sell crops, earning enough money to build a new house for his family. He repaid the kindness by donating his parents’ home to be used for a vocational school so young people in the community could learn skills such as tailoring and carpentry.
Like Wanyani, Dickson Metto has had a long struggle with poverty. He’s a widower living in a rural area near Eldoret, Kenya. After he lost his wife to AIDS two years ago, the 55-year-old’s problems only got worse when he too was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.
With help and instruction from CRWRC local partners, Metto planted maize on one acre of land to sell for profit. Unfortunately, supply was high and demand was low and Metto sold just two bags for 1,800 Kenya shillings (about $27 US) that first season. Though the money was welcome, little was left after Metto put deposits on school fees for his three children.
“There are a lot of school fees,” says Metto, who is expected to pay 22,000 Kenya shillings ($330 US) to get each of his children a secondary school education. “Unless I get some help with planting the maize, I won’t be able to keep them in school. I’m just too weak.”
Health and Spiritual Needs
AIDS-related illnesses render millions of people in Africa too sick to continue normal, productive lives. As a result farms go untilled, families go hungry, and children can’t afford to go to school. Hope becomes almost as vital to survival as anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs).
“Some people are not dying of HIV/AIDS,” says Mike Epiangu, program manager for CRWRC partner Katakwi Integrated Development Organization (KIDO) in northern Uganda. “They are dying of worry.”
One CRWRC program is helping ease that stress. “If someone is positive, it doesn’t mean they will die today,” says Esther Chesesio, a volunteer counselor at Plateau Hospital in Western Kenya. “I counsel them about the positives; they can live normally like people without HIV. When you talk to the client, they usually don’t react badly (to the news of being HIV positive) because you have explained HIV to the client.”
From Plateau Hospital, CRWRC dispatches health workers for a community-based health care program aimed at people living with HIV/AIDS in rural areas around the hospital.
The health workers offer spiritual and emotional support to those infected with the disease, while ensuring access to medication and monitoring their use. But for Metto, it’s the friendship that means the most.
“When the team visits me it makes me happy, even if it’s only to talk about how I’m doing,” said the father of four. “When I’m alone, I feel neglected. But the (health) team members are my friends.”
They introduced him to amaranth, a plant commonly used as both a vegetable and a grain. Packed with amino acids and essential vitamins and minerals, amaranth has been a key to boosting energy and overall health in persons living with HIV and AIDS.
“I use amaranth for nutrition: as vegetable, as porridge and cooking ugali (maize flour),” explains Metto.
Rose Mbone, 38, has also grown stronger since she began eating the amaranth the health team taught her to grow in her kitchen garden. The single mother of five children, two of whom live at home and are under 5 years old, says that once she contracted HIV, she often was sick.
“There was a time I was very sick; I was not able to assist my children,” recalls Mbone, who currently receives free anti-retroviral drugs through an initiative of the Kenyan government.
“Through the (health care) team, I not only received maize seeds, fertilizer, and money to plant, but also training to grow my crops and instruction on using amaranth to improve my health.”
Mbone participated in a study that monitored health improvements of people living with HIV and AIDS who ate amaranth as part of their daily diet. “My weight went up 8 kilos!” she says excitedly.
Whether bedridden or tilling the field, people living with HIV/AIDS face stigma and discrimination. Often they avoid getting tested for fear of being ostracized. This denies the HIV-positive person needed treatment and opens the door to unknowingly passing the virus on to someone else.
“[When] they knew I was HIV positive, no one would visit me,” says Metto. “All our friends turned away. I told the truth, and they ran away.”
CRWRC field staff train church and community leaders about the ill effects of stigma and discrimination. They also suggest healthy ways to counsel and support both the infected and the affected in their community.
“We need to stop looking at HIV as a problem that people deserve for their actions,” says Arianne Folkema, former program advisor for CRWRC Uganda. “We need to look at root causes, mercy, and grace.”
Mercy and grace are what Patricia Sawo covets from her community. “It is not the condition that hurts most,” she explains, “but the stigma and discrimination that hurts.”
In 1997 Sawo, a Kenyan pastor, told people in her congregation that HIV/AIDS is a punishment from God. Shortly thereafter, she contracted the disease from an unfaithful spouse. She lost her job, her home, and her husband, and she was forced to re-examine what she thought she knew about HIV and AIDS.
Rose Mbone has also been a target of discrimination. “When people know you are HIV positive they isolate you,” she explains. “They don’t want you to fetch water from their compound. They put up fences. I have to go around to the river for my water.”
“I didn’t know if this was right,” Mbone continues, “so I went to the CBHC to talk about HIV/AIDS and modes of transmission.” The health team explained to Mbone that HIV is most commonly passed through sexual intercourse, giving birth, and breastfeeding.
“I breastfed my children (because I was) unaware of the transmission potential,” explains Mbone, whose children, thankfully, are HIV negative. “That’s why I tested them.”
Getting the facts about HIV from organizations like CRWRC challenges communities to treat all members with fairness and dignity, while empowering the infected to live open, healthy, and positive lives. For these people, passing on what they’ve learned is often just as important as knowing it themselves.
“I tell the people to know their status . . . and not infect others,” says Mbone. “There are many people here that have the virus but are afraid to admit it. I have even announced in church that I am HIV positive.”
For two decades, CRWRC has embraced communities by applying sustainable models of community development to ease the economic hardship, spiritual brokenness, pain, and loss of HIV and AIDS.
The next step is to embrace the truth.
“In terms of knowing where to go from here, this is key: While HIV/AIDS is a moral issue, it is as much or more an issue of gender, socio-economic condition, stigma, and the global economy,” says Andrew Ryskamp, director of CRWRC-US.
“Africa is no less moral than North America or Europe,” says Ludfine Anyango Okeyo. He’s the HIV/AIDS coordinator for the global anti-poverty agency Action Aid International, and he’s HIV positive himself. “It is because of these underlying justice issues that we struggle. Any action on behalf of justice will automatically be working to fight AIDS.”
“The church must admit that the Body of Christ has HIV,” adds Anyango Okeyo. “The church has to show it’s on our side.”
How does CRWRC “Embrace AIDS”?
Ministering to people with AIDS is as complex as the disease itself. It’s more than medication and more than encouraging abstinence.
It is necessary to identify the symptoms and causes of AIDS, as well as addressing physical, mental, and spiritual needs. To do this, CRWRC seeks to follow Jesus’ example when working with the ill and needy.
Together community members and CRWRC can effect lasting change by
- helping families learn to earn an income despite the difficulties of their illness.
- supporting communities in caring for children orphaned by AIDS.
- training pastors and church leaders about HIV and how to effectively care for their community.
- providing community-based health care to families in remote areas.
- teaching caregivers and people living with HIV and AIDS ways to manage the illness, such as healthy eating.
- finding ways to get people access to anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs).
- offering psychological and spiritual counseling.
- teaching youth and adults about abstinence and faithfulness in marriage, and about the holiness of the human body.
- providing seeds to grow disease-fighting food and grains such as amaranth.
- addressing stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV and AIDS.
How can you “Embrace AIDS”?
CRWRC is committed to raising $3,000,000 for AIDS work in Africa, Asia, and Latin America over the next two years. We’re also committed to raising awareness about the facts of this devastating disease. Here are some things you can do to help:
- Become an “Aid for AIDS” monthly donor, and know that your gift is continuously offering support to people living with HIV and AIDS. If you prefer, you can also give several one-time donations to CRWRC’s AIDS work over the course of the campaign.
- Pray. Ask God to show us the way to end HIV and AIDS. Ask God for wisdom as you carve out your own part in closing the floodgates on this disease. Ask God to comfort the hearts of those struggling with or orphaned by the disease.
- Speak up. Make visits and write personalized letters to your elected representatives. Express your support for increased aid to developing countries, particularly those living under the oppression of HIV and AIDS.
- Promote the “Embrace AIDS” campaign. Spread the word around your church and community by inviting a CRWRC staff member to speak, teaching a workshop, or holding a fundraising event. The more people who know about HIV/AIDS and the good work that can be done, the more effectively we can combat the disease.
- Hold an event. Ask your deacon for the “Embrace AIDS” event planning guide provided by CRWRC.
- Visit CRWRC’s campaign website (www.embraceaids.org) for lots of ideas, resources, facts, and stories to help fuel your fight against HIV and AIDS.
About the Author
Stephanie Tombari is a senior writer with the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee.