MBABANE, Swaziland (BP) -- A 7-year-boy in a ragged gray shirt, with scabby knees and scuffed shoes, sits on a grass mat. He is listening intently to a presentation assuring him that the disease in his body is not his fault. Nor is it an ancestor's ire or demon possession. He has heard all these reasons for his suffering from various elders and has even been warned not to visit a clinic or accept antiretroviral (ARV) medication, or he will die.
Photo by Martha Richards
The presentation, however, tells him that his HIV is the work of microscopic organisms, contracted in his mother's womb, and the ARVs will ensure him a fairly normal life if he faithfully takes them. This is probably the first time he has heard this information, cutting across tradition, superstition and syncretism.
Swaziland has the highest adult HIV prevalence in the world; nearly 26 percent of the population is known to be infected, according to UNAIDS. Many others remain untested to avoid the stigma carried by the disease. Sangomas -- traditional healers -- promise cures if proper sacrifices are made to the ancestors, while syncretistic pastors describe HIV as the work of demons and prescribe sufficient faith as a substitute for ARVs. Polygamy is the norm, with the king setting the standard with his 14 official wives. Premarital sex is expected; many believe sexual abstinence is physically impossible or can cause insanity.
Confronting traditional practices and corrupted religion, four young women have sought to open the eyes of Swazi youth to the choice before them. Two, Brooklyn Evans* and Rachel Hays*, minister in the sugarcane fields and rural homesteads of northeast Swaziland, while Elisabeth Belle* and Sara Butler* work in the capital city, Mbabane, and surrounding mountains.
Serving through the Hands On program of the International Mission Board, the women are performing vital work. "What [we're] telling people could literally save lives," Evans says.
Hays agrees, "If nothing is done about the AIDS epidemic, this country will die."
World Health Organization data shows that 64 percent of all deaths in Swaziland in 2002 were related to HIV/AIDS. The CIA World Factbook reports Swaziland's life expectancy -- 49 years -- is one of the lowest in the world.
Working with national partners, the Hands On missionaries use visual presentations and interactive skits to dispel common myths about HIV, its transmission, life with the disease and, most importantly, how godly living is the only truly safe way. One demonstration shows how intercourse with multiple partners has repercussions far beyond those in direct contact, as each new relationship includes all past partners. The uncertainty of condoms as a means of HIV prevention is illustrated by a "poisoned" donut put in a bag with three other donuts and offered to the students -- they have a three-in-four chance of not dying. Read More