Kenya: Yes, we have HIV too, say four clergymen

Positive Muslims Bulletin
Four religious leaders yesterday spoke out openly about their HIV status. The Christian and Muslim clergy from various African countries cited fear of stigma and discrimination as the main obstacles to the fight against the Aids pandemic.
Anglican lay leader Gibson Mwangangi Mwadime (Kenya), pastor Amin Sandewa (Tanzania), Canon Gideon Byamugisha (Uganda) and Catholic priest Jape Heath of South Africa revealed their status at a forum organised by the Kenya Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV/Aids at a Nairobi hotel.
They won accolades from Kenya's Anglican Archbishop, the Most Rev Benjamin Nzimbi, and Information and Communications minister Raphael Tuju for their boldness. Said archbishop Nzimbi: "Hearing the testimony today, I could not help shedding tears. I feel like an accused in a court. Coming out to fight stigma is a big and bold step." He apologised on behalf of church leaders for not confronting stigma head-on.

"We want to apologise for the things which we have done and for leaving out things which we ought to have done," he said. The archbishop asked the Government to make drugs available and affordable to HIV/Aids carriers.

Mr Tuju said: "We have come a long way and to be sitting in this room with religious leaders living and affected by HIV/Aids. This is evidence that change is on the way. It will continue and it is inevitable."

Earlier, Mr Mwadime, who is based in the Taveta Anglican diocese, said he had had HIV/Aids for more than 20 years and had lost his wife and two children to the disease.

He had been infected by his wife soon after she had undergone a blood transfusion during an operation. Pastor Sandewa said he had been discriminated against by his church soon after he was infected in 1999.

Canon Byamugisha, who has been HIV-positive for 18 years, said: "Many of Africa's deaths are preventable, postponable and reversible if only we can defeat the stigma, shame, discrimination, denial and inaction."

Credited with being among the first religious leaders to declare their status, Canon Byamugisha said: "We must defeat stigma. It frustrates God's world vision for mankind." For his part, Father Heath, chairman of the African Network of Religious leaders living with or personally affected by HIV/Aids, said: "Though HIV/Aids is bigger than the church, it is not bigger than God."

Ms Rukia Ahmed of Moyale said most Muslims were "still in denial", adding: "Many people are being buried every day. Yet our people say they died because of malaria. We should come out and speak out."

Ms Rukia, a mother of three, told the Nation that, contrary to reports, North Eastern Kenyans were also infected and affected by the epidemic.

USAid's senior regional HIV/Aids adviser, Mr Warren Buckingham, who has had HIV/ Aids for 27 years, decried the lack of vision among religious leaders. "Where vision has been articulated by religious leaders, too much of it and for too long has been a vision of judgement and damnation, of punishment and persecution."

Calling for a new vision where stigma, denial, discrimination, inaction and "misaction" are non-existent, Mr Buckingham asked religious leaders to play their role as witnesses of hope and forces for change.

He asked the Government to speed up the drugs tendering process, saying the delay was costing lives. Mr Buckingham welcomed Mr Tuju's assurance that the Government had waived duty on anti-retroviral drugs.

Originally published on 22 June 2005 in The Nation. Report by Tony Kago.