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Words and deeds

It takes both to break the cycle of AIDS in the southern African nation of Malawi

Words and deeds

LILONGWE, Malawi—Malawi is missionary country. The financial capital of the tiny southern African country is Blantyre, named after David Livingstone's birthplace in Scotland. Over three-fourths of the population identifies itself as Christian, and Christianity has been a part of the country's culture since the mid-1800s when Dr. Livingstone landed here. Malawi's Presbyterian Church is pervasive and respected. Approximately 3 million Presbyterians live in Malawi, compared to 2.5 million mainline Presbyterian churchgoers in the United States.

Yet 15 percent of Malawi's adult population has HIV/AIDS. Homosexuality is very rare here; AIDS travels through promiscuous sex in a society where wives are expected to be faithful but husbands often have multiple partners or more than one wife. Why has its heritage of church teaching failed to inoculate the country against a disease that is spread primarily through activity forbidden in Scripture?

Fletcher Matandika, founder of Ministry of Hope, said the church has done a good job of evangelizing but a poor job of discipling. "Christianity here is a mile wide and an inch deep," he said. "Tradition, superstition, and lack of education exert a powerful influence on people. You can have a crusade and ask people to accept Jesus and most of the crowd will raise their hands, and then the next week it's as if nothing happened. We need to move beyond just telling people about Jesus, we need to develop people who are spiritually mature."

John Aberle-Gaffe with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control believes poverty and the low estate of women in Malawian culture are also to blame. "There is no social safety net here. No homes for the homeless or shelters for abused women, no programs of any kind," he said. "When the poverty is this bad you'll trade sex for food, sex for shelter, sex to not get beat up, sex to not get thrown out of the house."

Many Malawian women, according to Mr. Aberle-Graffe, may know their husbands are being unfaithful but they would never have the backing of their families or communities to challenge the men or demand fidelity. They may refuse to be tested for fear of being ostracized. They know there are no resources in Malawi for anti-retroviral drugs or other treatments, anyway. Those who suspect they may be HIV positive quickly turn fatalistic, asking, "Why find out? If I'm living under a death sentence, I'd rather not know for as long as possible."

Superstitions about the source of evil and how to avoid it are also part of the problem. Witch doctors dominate many villages. In one, a girl whose father had recently died said she was told he died from an evil spell. Despite AIDS education by faith-based and other groups, many villagers continue to put their trust in "virginal cleansing" - the myth that having sex with a virgin will cure AIDS.

While the epidemic has brought much suffering and grief to Malawi, it also galvanizes committed Christians to act, Mr. Matandika said. His ministry to orphans attracts volunteers, especially from African Bible College and from U.S. Christians who want to help. Villages have pooled resources to donate land and labor to build feeding centers. On any given day volunteers can be found at one of the centers, serving out a meal of beans and nsema, a maize-like staple, before conducting worship and Bible study.

Mr. Matandika says, "If these kids hadn't lost their parents, many of them would never have heard about Christ. Now, Christ is about all they have." At one feeding center 200 orphans, many wearing little more than rags, sing, "We are walking in the light of God." For children growing up without one or more parents they are respectful, playful, and friendly. With consistent teaching and care, they could grow up to break the epidemic's cycle.

- Mr. Kornegay is an associate professor in the journalism school at the University of South Carolina

Van Kornegay

Van Kornegay