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Catholics fighting AIDS in Africa.

On a bright Tuesday morning, Nancy Mtukuzi sits outside a mud hut in the remote village of Ndola in Zambia. The sixty-five-year-old woman is surrounded by seven children ranging in age from three to thirteen years. She has just given them a ration of sadza, the local staple food, but they are looking at her with hungry eyes asking for more. "You will have to wait for porridge in the morning. We must ration the little food we have," Nancy tells the children, who just stare at her with blank faces.

Nancy is not the parent of the children she is feeding. They belong to her two sons, who have died with their wives at different times in the last three years.

"They were killed by the disease," Nancy tells me, sadness radiating from her eyes.

The disease that Nancy is referring to is AIDS, which is threatening to decimate Africa. 29.4 million of the 42 million people infected with the HIV virus globally are in Africa. 14 million have already died and there are an estimated 14 million AIDS orphans. Grandparents such as Nancy are finding themselves with the difficult burden of raising grandchildren whose parents are dying daily across the continent. Faced with this tragedy, the Catholic Church in Africa is waging a spirited fight to contain the AIDS scourge in the continent.

"The Church rests in solidarity with humanity, particularly with the sick. Faced with the worrying increase of AIDS in our country--and the suffering which it creates--the Catholic Church must contribute to the struggle against the disease," says Monsignor Basile Tapsoba, the bishop of Koudogou in Burkina Faso.

Tapsoba is a member of the National Catholic AIDS Committee (NCAC). The project was established in 2001 in response to the growing HIV infection rate in the country. It reaches out to HIV/AIDS-infected and affected individuals throughout the country by working through the 12 dioceses of the Catholic Church.

The Vatican has given full support to efforts by the Church in Africa to combat the disease. In September last year, Pope John Paul II met Uganda's Catholic bishops at the Vatican and endorsed their anti-AIDS efforts which he said were "in complete harmony with the Church teaching". The Pope has also issued a message urging the world to help Africa fight the scourge. "Humanity can not close its eyes in the face of so appalling a tragedy," he said.

The African Church has already adopted a policy to deal with the challenge. During the 13th Plenary Assembly of the Bishops' Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM) in Senegal last year, the Church came up with a programme of action which includes waging a co-ordinated effort at the continental level in the struggle against the pandemic.

"We commit ourselves to making available our Church's resources be they our educational and health care institutions or social services," a communique issued by the conference said.

South Africa has the highest incidence of AIDS in the world. Five million people are HIV positive and 1,700 become infected every day. 700,000 under the age of 15 have been orphaned by the disease. It is estimated that, if this infection rate is not reversed, half of the children of this age will die.

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) is committing massive resources to fight the disease in South Africa. CRS is the international relief and development arm of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Partnering with the Catholic Church organization Caritas, other religious organizations, and NGOs, CRS currently supports more than 80 HIV/AIDS projects in over 30 countries.

The organization works in partnership with the Southern Africa Catholic Bishops' Conference (SACBC) which supports over 100 community-based HIV/AIDS projects. The projects focus on home-based care, AIDS education, and orphan support. CRS funds the Catholic Institute of Education (CIE), an associate body of SACBC, which provides quality HIV/AIDS and life skills education in over 300 Catholic primary schools throughout South Africa. The CIE project helps schools develop plans to deal with the effects of the epidemic.

AIDS is still stigmatized in Africa, and orphans suffer most.

"AIDS orphans have never been fully accepted. That is why I started Nyumbani Children's Home. I wanted to make them feel part of humanity," says Father Angelo D'Agostino.

D'Agostino, a native of Washington, DC, has helped give AIDS a human face in Kenya. The Jesuit priest started the home, which is exclusively for AIDS orphans, in 1992. It has 70 children who have been thrown away by their parents or taken there by social workers.

His work has not been easy. Government schools have refused to admit the children because of their HIV status. D'Agostino took the government to court early this year to compel the schools to admit them. He won the case and prompted the government to outlaw discrimination of HIV-infected children in school admission.

One of the biggest challenges the Catholic Church is facing is how to deal with mounting pressure for the promotion of condom use. Early this year, British International Development Secretary Clare Short took a swipe at the Church for its opposition to condom use in Africa. "The Catholic Church is stuck and wrong on these questions," she said. The Senegal SECAM Conference made it clear that the Church would only fight the disease using methods that adhere to the Church's teachings.

"Using condoms as a means of preventing AIDS can only lead to sexual promiscuity," says Archbishop Dominic Bulamatari of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who attended the conference.

Some political leaders are also questioning the wisdom of promoting condoms. Last fall, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, accused the West of promoting condom use in Africa "for selfish economic gain".

Political factors are threatening the Church's fight against the disease. In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe is cracking down on non-governmental organizations, which he said, in August this year, are being used as "conduits of foreign interference" in his country. The government has introduced a law that will give it more control over these bodies.

In March this year, Sibambene, an AIDS and orphan organization run by the Catholic diocese of Bulawayo became a casualty of the new law. The region's district administrator ordered it to close its operations until it registers. The organization offers home-based care to over 200 orphans and AIDS sufferers. Another organization, Souls' Comfort, was ordered to stop taking photographs of people living with AIDS.

"The law needs a concerted response from Church leaders and other human rights groups. Our health and education institutes could be under threat," says Alouis Chaumba, National Coordinator of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace.

A ray of hope is emerging. International pharmaceutical companies are bowing to pressure to lower the cost of anti-retroviral drugs, which are out of reach for most of the AIDS sufferers who need them.

"When we reach a stage where all the people who need these drugs can afford them, the battle against AIDS in Africa will have been half won," says Dr. Wilberforce Kamau, a Nairobi-based doctor.

David Karanga is a novelist and journalist in Nairobi, Kenya. He has been a columnist for Daily News of Zimbabwe. He is currently the editor of Story, a literary magazine in Nairobi.
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Author:Karanja, David
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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