HIV-infected African cleric preaches about AIDS

April 30, 2006|By EDMUND SANDERS | EDMUND SANDERS,LOS ANGELES TIMES

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 percent of the world's cases. 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.

Only a few public figures in Africa have publicly acknowledged having the disease. An 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.

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.

Depressed, Mwadime and his wife, Evelyn, battled thoughts of suicide, wishing some accident would befall them before their secret could be revealed.

He announced to a packed church that they were HIV-positive.

The disclosure has tested the limits of love and acceptance by Mwadime's parishioners, partly dividing the isolated mountain town of Wundanyi, near the Tanzanian border, where the couple live.

It also gave courage to some neighbors who do not follow the Anglican faith.

"I thought I was alone," said Veronica Mkawasi, 34, a Roman Catholic who lost a child to AIDS and had been secretly combating the disease.

Now she is not afraid to seek medical treatment and is beginning to disclose her status to close friends. Mwadime said discussing his condition in classrooms and with youth groups was the most uncomfortable aspect of his new life. Invariably, his disclosure sparks blunt questions about his sex life that he never imagined he'd face as a clergyman.

Father David Otieno, the local Catholic priest, said Mwadime threatened to taint his church with questions of immorality, undermining parishioners' faith in their religious leaders. It's unseemly, he said, for a clergyman to be so absorbed in matters of his own sexuality.

"When it comes to matters of faith, we have to be very careful," he said. "When something comes from a pastor, it has more weight. Not everything should be brought to the surface."

In 2001, Byamugisha co-founded the African Network of Religious Leaders Living with HIV/AIDS, a support group that counts more than 1,300 members in 11 nations, representing various faiths, including Roman Catholicism, Islam and evangelical Christianity. To date, only a few members have publicly disclosed their illnesses.

Edmund Sanders writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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