MBABANE, Swaziland (BP) – A 7-year-boy in a ragged gray shirt, with scabby knees and scuffed shoes, sits on a grass mat. He is listening intently to a presentation assuring him that the disease in his body is not his fault. Nor is it an ancestor’s ire or demon possession. He has heard all these reasons for his suffering from various elders and has even been warned not to visit a clinic or accept antiretroviral (ARV) medication, or he will die.
The presentation, however, tells him that his HIV is the work of microscopic organisms, contracted in his mother’s womb, and the ARVs will ensure him a fairly normal life if he faithfully takes them. This is probably the first time he has heard this information, cutting across tradition, superstition and syncretism.
The African country of Swaziland has the highest adult HIV prevalence in the world; nearly 26 percent of the population is known to be infected, according to UNAIDS. Many others remain untested to avoid the stigma carried by the disease. Sangomas – traditional healers – promise cures if proper sacrifices are made to the ancestors, while syncretistic pastors describe HIV as the work of demons and prescribe sufficient faith as a substitute for ARVs. Polygamy is the norm, with the king setting the standard with his 14 official wives. Premarital sex is expected; many believe sexual abstinence is physically impossible or can cause insanity.
Confronting traditional practices and corrupted religion, four young women have sought to open the eyes of Swazi youth to the choice before them. Two, Brooklyn Evans* and Rachel Hays*, minister in the sugarcane fields and rural homesteads of northeast Swaziland, while Elisabeth Belle* and Sara Butler* work in the capital city, Mbabane, and surrounding mountains.
Photo by Safiya Brooks.
HIV-infected student Qiniselani Ndwandwe has been told he should not visit a clinic or take antiretroviral medications. Many in Swaziland believe AIDS is caused by demon possession or an ancestor’s ire. Here, a coloring sheet is used to help him learn the truth about his disease.
Serving through the Hands On program of the International Mission Board, the women are performing vital work. “What [we’re] telling people could literally save lives,” Evans says.
Hays agrees, “If nothing is done about the AIDS epidemic, this country will die.”
World Health Organization data shows that 64 percent of all deaths in Swaziland in 2002 were related to HIV/AIDS. The CIA World Factbook reports Swaziland’s life expectancy – 49 years – is one of the lowest in the world.
Working with national partners, the Hands On missionaries use visual presentations and interactive skits to dispel common myths about HIV, its transmission, life with the disease and, most importantly, how godly living is the only truly safe way. One demonstration shows how intercourse with multiple partners has repercussions far beyond those in direct contact, as each new relationship includes all past partners. The uncertainty of condoms as a means of HIV prevention is illustrated by a “poisoned” donut put in a bag with three other donuts and offered to the students – they have a three-in-four chance of not dying.
Advocates also act out how sexual promiscuity tears apart families and lives, in addition to destroying health. “‘Don’t have sex’ is an important message,” Evans says, “but it’s also, ‘Don’t give your heart away.’“
To this end, Evans and her teammates contrast the biblical story of Amnon, a son of David who raped his half-sister, with that of Joseph, the husband of Mary, highlighting the difference between love and lust as defined in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8. They also use their personal testimonies of how they have upheld their pledge to wait for marriage.
The advocates face a huge task, as sexuality is rarely discussed openly, allowing superstition to flourish. Church attendance is no guarantee of right belief or action, as animism and ancestor worship often infiltrate churches. “Religion here is so intertwined with their culture …” Hays relates, “even people who are Christians still worry that the ancestors will be upset.”
She recalls one pastor who gave a Bible to an HIV-positive woman and said, “If you follow Jesus, you won’t need these [ARV] pills anymore.” The same man claimed testing was unnecessary because if one has the Holy Spirit, the “soldiers” that carry HIV cannot get into his or her blood.
Misconstrued Christianity often leads to disappointment. “The ‘prosperity gospel’ is huge here,” Hays observes. “They think, ‘God will give me anything I want,’ and when He doesn’t, that’s when they go to a sangoma.”
The presentations the women give are based on a mindset very foreign to Swazis. Swazi culture places great importance on population size, with women expected to have at least five children while men are encouraged to impregnate multiple partners.
“You can give this presentation to 60, 70 people, and only five will really get it,” Hays says. Additionally, Evans notes that while people may make a commitment to stay sexually pure, “Follow-through is very difficult.”
There is also a strong need for Christian men to set the example of godly living for young Swazis. A study by the UN Population Fund found that decision-making, including family planning and sexuality, is largely a male prerogative.
While elders often hold to traditional beliefs, the Hands On teams have seen progress in their young audience. “It’s been really encouraging to see kids getting it,” Evans says. “When the children understand what we’re teaching them, it’s fantastic.”
Butler concurs, “We’ve seen the amazing response of youth trusting us enough to ask real questions, because we’ll give them real answers.”