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Papal call for chastity close to AIDS-ravaged Africa bone.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Chastity is the answer, Pope John Paul II told AIDS-decimated Uganda this month during his 10th visit to Africa. To some, it seemed a lame exhortation in the face of a devastating epidemic that has infected at least 1.5 million Ugandans. However, experienced Africa watchers said last week that it cuts unpredictably close to the East African bone.

Experts interviewed agreed that a generation ago AIDS would have made little headway in Uganda. Transmission of the virus is primarily heterosexual in East Africa, and tradition tribal mores strongly emphasized marital fidelity, even though some of the cultures were polygamous. In some nomadic tribes in the north of the country, penalties for sexual infidelity are still severe.

But AIDS has now infiltrated even there. It has been carried from the south and west by prostitutes returning home from the cities to die, by soldiers from other tribes and by long-distance truck drivers, many of them infected by the prostitutes who congregate at truck stops along the trans-African highway. Intended as a path of progress, the highway has become a major artery for the spread of AIDS across the continent, sources said.

At least since 1971, when renegade Col. Idi Amin's avalanche of terror first crushed across the country, Ugandan social structures have been breaking down. Political chaos and military confrontations have kept the country in almost constant turmoil. The economy was sapped. Poverty forced people off the land and into urban instability.

Many women turned to prostitution to survive, said Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Joan Mumaw. An anthropologist who taught in Uganda for years and recently returned there for a visit, Mumaw said the AIDS virus has infected at least 30 percent of the population of Kampala, the country's capital and, with more than a million people, its largest city.

Some towns have been hit so hard that there are hardly any adults left alive, Mumaw said. Hundreds of thousands of orphans have been left to their own devices, children caring for children. In some villages, old people lock the children in together at night and let them out in the morning, she said.

Holy Cross Father James Ferguson, who has worked in Uganda and was there again last year, said chastity is one of the few viable options left to many Ugandans.

Ferguson, now teaching at Notre Dame, said a visiting professor from Uganda told him recently that many Ugandan women were against the use of condoms because the illusion of safety encouraged their husbands to be more promiscuous. Safety is an especially dangerous illusion, because many of the condoms available in Uganda are of inferior quality and often fail, the priest explained.

Here and there, the message is getting across, Ferguson added, and it is not so different from what the pope said. Ugandans are going into some of the primary schools and teaching chastity as a life-saving option.

A Comboni missioner, with long experience in northern Uganda, agreed that the foundation for marital chastity is already there in the country's traditional cultures. If they only followed their own customs, they would be very close to what the pope urged upon them, he said.

"Those nomadic tribes in the north are some of the most primal people on earth," the missioner added. "I was surprised at their strict rules on sexuality."

While admitting that under the terrible circumstances the pope's remarks sounded inadequate, Mumaw said she found the situation in Uganda a bit more hopeful than when she was last there, in the 1980s.

Uganda, with a population of 17.5 million, is about 66 percent Christian and, quite apart from many visitors from the West, the church there is making a strong gesture of compassion toward people with AIDS, Mumaw said. Hospitals are overflowing, so pastoral teams of laypeople go out to visit AIDS patients in their homes.

"I was impressed," she said.
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Title Annotation:Uganda
Author:McCarthy, Tim
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Feb 26, 1993
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