Church in Mozambique grapples with AIDS pandemic

Nov. 19, 2004

By Kathy L. Gilbert

Smiling, excited children, ranging from toddlers to teens, stand on a sagging front porch singing at the top of their lungs as visitors arrive.

Two-year-old Pedro spies a woman in the group without a child in her arms. He quickly fixes that problem by tugging on her pants leg and holding up his little arms.

All the smiling faces and the lively chatter momentarily mask the reason the children are here. They are orphans whose parents have died because of the AIDS pandemic that has swept through Mozambique.

Teles Orphanage, supported by the United Methodist Women’s Society of Mozambique, was originally established to shelter children left homeless by war.

Ten adults, led by director Amelia Titos Messane, care for the children. As she talks, Messane reaches down and picks up a small boy and holds him close. The child has been at the orphanage since he was one month old.

“Many of the children will stay here all their lives because they have no place else to go,” she says. “They depend on the school and the school depends on the United Methodist Church.”

Corridor to new misery

After more than 30 years of war, peace finally came to Mozambique in 1992. But peace brought with it a new deadly enemy: AIDS.

After the peace agreement was signed ending the country’s civil war, corridors opened into Mozambique from Zimbabwe, South Africa, Zambia and Malawi, says United Methodist Bishop Joao Somane Machado. “Those countries depend on our Indian Ocean to export and import, but the trade corridors also opened the door for HIV/AIDS to invade the country.”

In Mozambique during 2003, AIDS killed 110,000 people, left 470,000 children orphans and found 520 new victims every day, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
The United Methodist Church in Mozambique is working to overcome cultural barriers to bring information about the disease to people. With a membership of 160,000, the church is sadly outnumbered.

Despite huge sums of money flowing into the country from agencies around the world aimed at preventing the disease, Machado says the problem is growing.

“We have many, many organizations from outside of the country trying to come here to help us with this issue,” Machado says. “But the number of AIDS cases is going up, not down. This is because they come with a system used somewhere else; they don’t come and study the culture of Mozambique.”

The first thing many of those organizations want to do is distribute condoms, he says.

Most Mozambicans live in rural areas. There are no shopping centers or places to buy things, Machado points out. “When I go there to visit, they ask me for salt because they have no salt for their food. How can you expect them to use condoms when they have no place to find them and do not even know what condoms are?

“You can’t tell young girls they must be faithful to their husbands — they know that — yet many young women are dying and being infected,” he says.

High unemployment in Mozambique forces many men to work in the mines in South Africa. The men are away from home for as long as 18 months, and while they are away, many of them become infected, Machado explains. When they return home, they pass the disease to their wives.

“Wives can’t say no to their husband when he comes back, even when he is sick,” Machado says.

Groups visiting the country from Europe and the United States try their own methods for educating the people about HIV/AIDS.
“They try to put son-in-law and mother-in-law together and try to teach them. In our culture this is not possible,” he says. In order for real conversations to happen, the culture of the people must be taken into consideration.

First, the people must recognize and accept the disease, Machado says. He says sorcery is often blamed for death, even when a medical doctor tells a family that a member has died of AIDS.

“They don’t accept. They said, ‘No, no, no. We know who killed him.’”

Center for peace

Machado is working with JustaPaz, a center for the study and transformation of conflict, and the Christian Council of Mozambique to train pastors and church leaders to educate the people about HIV/AIDS. The disease is a source of conflict in families, and the center is known for its ability to help people resolve all types of conflicts, he adds.

Before conversations and seminars were held, Machado says many of the churches were teaching people that HIV/AIDS “was a punishment from God.”

“You cannot say those things from the pulpit,” he says. “After many discussions with the Christian Council, they now understand that this is a simple disease that we need to deal with. We need to love the people.”

Lucille Bonaventure with JustaPaz says working with the churches is an important way to reach the people.

Christians and AIDS: A Theological/Biblical Reflection in the Face of HIV/AIDS is a Bible study developed by the center with the cooperation of all the Christian denominations in Mozambique.

“The denominations all agreed on the text, and it is the first manual developed in Mozambique where cultural issues are addressed,” Bonaventure says. The booklet uses Scripture to back up every point, reminding people that Jesus Christ cared for the lepers and those shunned by society.
This biblical approach helps pastors speak from the pulpit to raise awareness and erase the stigma associated with the disease, she says.

“Churches should be places where people take care of orphans and those who are sick,” she says. The manual and Sunday school lessons, “Life in Abundance,” are printed in Portuguese.

“The word of pastors in Mozambique is more respected than the word of politicians because of what we did bringing peace in Mozambique,” Machado says. “They know the message of the church is true.”

Teaching the people to love those who are infected with the disease and ways to prevent the disease from spreading is the role of the church, he says.

“In the pulpit we can say these things. We can appeal to the people. Those living with HIV/AIDS are still in our family — they need our love and support. This is the message we need to tell people.”

The 2004 United Methodist General Conference established a Global AIDS Fund in an effort to raise $8 million in the next four years. Contributions to Global HIV/AIDS Program may be sent through a local United Methodist church, annual conference or by mailing a check to: Advance GCFA, P.O. Box 9068, GPO, New York, NY 10087-9068. Write your check out to “Advance GCFA.” Be sure to include Global HIV/AIDS Program, Advance #982345 on the check memo line. Call 1-888-252-6174 to give by credit card. For more information visit the Advance Web site

Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer in Nashville, Tenn.

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