NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) On Valentine’s Day, some Kenyan pastors handed out red roses as a sign of love to HIV-positive youth suffering stigma and discrimination.
The gesture was meant as a way to reach out to youth, many of whom feel rejected by the churches.
“We came to show the youth that we care and support them,” said the Rev. Geoffrey Wanjala Munialo, a pastor with Vineyard Church, a Pentecostal congregation in Nairobi.
“We’ve also been teaching them the right perspective of love,” he added. “The right perspective helps people care and eliminate stigma and discrimination in HIV.”
Widespread stigma prevents many youth living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, from coming forward and acknowledging their condition.
“Most parents prefer the status of their children remain unknown,” said Munialo. “They fear guilt by association.”
Mary Mutua, who is HIV-positive, said she blames the church for not giving greater priority to people like her.
“The church does not want to talk about it,” she said, because it means acknowledging that young people contract the virus through sexual intercourse.
“Many are comfortable supporting those who got it at birth because they feel it’s less sinful,” she added.
AIDS is the No. 1 cause of death among adolescents in Africa, according to a UNICEF study that showed the number of teenagers dying from AIDS has tripled since 2000, while the number of new infections in other age groups has slowed.
Girls subject to sexual violence, forced marriages and trafficking, and gay and bisexual boys who use drugs are especially vulnerable.
The Rev. James Muhia, the parish minister at the Presbyterian Church of East Africa in Ruiru near Nairobi, acknowledges that churches have not always done the right thing by young people.
“Forgiveness will open the doors for the church to accept and embrace them,” Muhia said, referring to young people.
Jane Ng’ang’a, the program officer for the International Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV-Kenya, urged churches to work to become safe places for the youth and others.
“There are some wounded youth who have come to church,” said Ng’ang’a, “but they do not feel safe enough to share their condition.”
(Fredrick Nzwili is an RNS correspondent based in Nairobi)
by Fredrick Nzwili
NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) Some Kenyan churches are demanding premarital HIV testing before weddings, a trend activists warn is infringing on the rights of people living with HIV and AIDS.
For some, it’s a quiet matter, with the couples privately told to check with a doctor or a clinic, but for others an HIV test is a mandatory requirement before the couples are joined in marriage.
Recently, some Pentecostal and evangelical groups have demanded strict adherence to the requirement, while Roman Catholic and most mainline Protestant churches tend to be less strict.
“The practice has become entrenched in many churches,” said Jane Ng’ang’a, coordinator of the Kenyan chapter of an international network of religious leaders living with HIV/AIDS. “While it is agreeable to advise a couple to take the test, our concern is the demand for a disclosure of the status is against the law. The challenge is that most church leaders do not know the law.”
During the past decade, new HIV infections in the largely Christian country have risen faster than in any other in sub-Saharan country, according to a study by the Global Burden of Disease collaborative.
Last year, over 1.8 million Kenyans were living with the HIV virus, which, if left untreated, can lead to AIDS. Nearly 39 percent of those were using life-prolonging antiretroviral drugs, a rate below the regional average rate of 43 percent.
Ten years ago, the country passed a law banning HIV tests as a precondition for marriage. The law warns against breaching confidentiality and disclosing individual statuses without consent.
But Ng’ang’a said the network was recently alarmed after it found out that some churches were breaching confidentiality after receiving the tests.
“Some tests were kept in open files that could easily be scrutinized by anyone,” she said. “We see this as a new form of stigma and discrimination for those with HIV and AIDS.”
The clergy who demand the HIV tests say they are driven by a desire to protect their members from HIV and AIDS. They say the church needs to help nurture healthy families and prevent divorce, disease and death.
“A HIV test is mandatory for any couple planning to wed in our church,” said the Rev. Solomon Mwalili of the Free Pentecostal Fellowship in Kenya. “I think it’s for general good — for the two involved and the family they plan to raise.”
Pentecostal pastor James Kyalo of the Machakos region, 40 miles from the capital Nairobi, said his church demands two HIV tests: the first when the couple seeks to start the wedding process; then six months later.
He said the church members have never protested or complained about the requirement.
Some pastors say couples should know the test results if they plan to rear children. Once they know they are infected, for example, they can seek advice from doctors on how to care for themselves and how to live in the community.
The Rev. Patrick Lihanda, superintendent of the Pentecostal Assemblies of God, said that when one of the couples is HIV-positive, they do not ask the couple to split, but instead advise them how to live together.
“HIV is a reality and we cannot bury our heads in the sand,” said Lihanda. “When we find out that one of couple is infected, we counsel them and marry them. I think that’s the best thing to do, since they are in love.”
The Rev. Wellington Mutiso, an official with the Baptist Convention of Kenya, said many Baptist churches do not demand the test, since most couples have already engaged in premarital sex before the church wedding.
Like Baptists, mainline churches find the demand for the test discriminatory and an obstacle in the fight against the epidemic.
“A certificate or a test is not important for us, since anyone can contract HIV,” said Anglican Bishop Julius Kalu of the Mombasa Diocese. “The virus does not also mean one cannot live a full life. Even in cases of HIV, the couple can still live together.”
(Fredrick Nzwili is an RNS correspondent based in Nairobi)
A LIGHT FOR ANGOLA: Leila Lopes, Miss Angola 2011, was crowned Miss Universe on September 12. She is the first Angolan to win the honor. (Darren Decker/Newscom Photo)
Newly crowned Miss Universe Leila Lopes isn’t your average beauty queen. Lopes “wants to help her native Angola further escape a history of war and impoverishment and said she plans to focus on combating HIV around the globe,” Associated Press reported.
Her win raises the question: Can beauty pageants be redemptive?
Opportunity to Highlight Angola’s Troubles
The Washington Post outlined Angola’s troubled history in light of Lopes’ win. That history includes a 27-year civil war, during which 300,000-500,000 people died. As of 2009, 38 percent of Angolans lived in poverty. The life expectancy for both men and women in this country of south-central Africa is 50-53 years, and 2 percent of the population suffers from HIV or AIDS, the article said.
Reminder That Beauty Comes from Within
Lopes is a business management student in Great Britain. When questoned about what physical traits she would change if she could, Lopes said she was satisfied with the way God created her and wouldn’t change a thing. “I consider myself a woman endowed with inner beauty. I have acquired many wonderful principles from my family and I intend to follow these for the rest of my life,” she said.
Jude and broadcast journalist Connie Chung echoed these sentiments, telling Associated Press, “You have to keep in mind that these women are not objects just to be looked at. They’re to be taken seriously. I want to choose somebody I take seriously and the world takes seriously, too.”
Not everyone was so generous though. At The Huffington Post Lili Gil reported that seven-of-16 semifinalists were Latinas and their fans took to Twitter to complain that some of these women didn’t emerge as finalists.
Asked about being one of the few blacks ever crowned Miss Universe, Lopes said “any racist needs to seek help” and “it’s not normal in the 21st century to think in that way.”
At The Root, Jenée Desmond-Harris offered this fitting conclusion, “Remember Satoshi Kanazawa, the professor [and former Psychology Today blogger] who distorted facts to make a “scientific” claim that black women were less attractive? We’d love it if the new Miss Universe could have a word with him at some point during her reign.”
What do you think? Are beauty pageants ever appropriate for Christians or does Lopes make us think harder about their value?
The Book of Mormon, a play by the creators of South Park about two Mormon missionaries to Uganda, won nine Tony awards Sunday night, including Best Musical, but according to an April review that was reprinted at The Root this week, its plot is nothing to celebrate. Observes writer Janice C. Simpson:
If you’re black and your skin is even a little thin, there’s plenty in this show to rub you the wrong way, too. The Ugandans whom the missionaries encounter are plagued by poverty, AIDS and an evil warlord who forcibly subjects women to circumcision. Despite these woes, the villagers are portrayed as good-hearted, if simple-minded, people. One keeps referring to an old battered typewriter as her “texting machine.” Another stomps around talking about raping babies because he believes that doing so will rid him of HIV. A dream sequence is set in hell, where the devil’s main disciples are Genghis Khan, Adolf Hitler, the serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, and Johnnie Cochran, who, a song explains, is there for his part in helping to free O.J.
Simpson notes that the material is “played for can’t-you-take-a-joke laughs,” but she didn’t find the subject matter funny.
RACE, RELIGION & SATIRE: The cast of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon" during the show's opening night in March.
“Parker and Stone [the show’s creators], who call themselves libertarians, have gotten away with this kind of cavalier attitude toward serious subjects for years because of their ability to sugarcoat it with faux irony,” Simpson declares before accusing the South Park provocateurs of “indulging in cultural colonialism of the most insidious kind.”
Sure, the head villager is seen as a wise man, and his daughter is the doe-eyed idealist who brings the sides together. But the show doesn’t work unless the villagers are seen mainly as noble savages who need white people to show them the way to enlightenment. And in the end, their salvation comes from believing in the white missionaries who have been dropped into their midst.
At The Grio, Earl Ofari Hutchinson read the play differently, writing today that it “skewers Mormons for the church’s decades of racial prejudice and for their prodigious proselytizing activities in Africa.” Hutchinson said the church’s history will “saddle” Mormon presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman with “the heavy burden of the religion’s racial history,” which he said includes its refusal to publicly apologize for its “long, stubborn, and dogmatic defense of alleged biblical encoded racism.”
Perhaps in anticipation of the musical’s Tony Award domination, Mark Oppenheimer reported on the black Latter Day Saints Genesis Group in his latest New York Times column. Oppenheimer attended a picnic with 300 members of the group in Utah and told stories of how they, as black Mormons, grapple with their church’s history of racial prejudice.
Oppenheimer quotes Max Perry Mueller, who is reportedly writing a dissertation at Harvard on African Americans and the Mormon church. Mueller told Oppenheimer that the Latter Day Saints have “made a very sincere effort” to welcome blacks, but few African Americans have joined. He also said the notion that until recently Mormons were “exceptionally exclusionary or racist is probably unfair” because “while no other large, predominantly white church barred blacks from the clergy in the 1970s, none was particularly integrated or had notable black leaders, either.”
If you’ve seen The Book of Mormon, what do you think? Is it racist, anti-religious, or just an equal-opportunity offender that shouldn’t be taken that seriously?
The other night as I rode the subway home from a meeting, I took my seat in the middle of a condom rally. Yes, that’s right, a condom rally. When I sat down, I was across from two teenagers, a boy and a girl, who were sitting across from two of their friends who were standing in front of the subway-car doors. This set of parallel teenagers each had condoms in their hands and were exchanging them with each other by airborne express. The pair I was sitting across from were remarking on how cool they thought it was that their friends’ school handed out condoms in bulk.