Hazel Southam - Journalist

Sex and the Bible

Geographical: February 2013
‘I’m not worried,’ says 32-year-old Everine Khondeni. But as she sits down at a small wooden table in her mud-brick home in the village of Kasarika in Malawi, her expression changes.
It’s her first AIDS test in two years. In 2010, her husband was diagnosed HIV+. Since then, the couple have used condoms to stop Everine also becoming positive, but she knows that there’s a risk that she could have contracted the virus before her husband was diagnosed.
Dyton Chinganyama is one of three HIV testers who are living in Kasarika for three months, going door-to-door offering tests in people’s homes. Sitting in the darkened house, alongside Everine’s tomato harvest, he explains how HIV is transmitted, how it’s prevented, takes Everine’s blood and then we all wait. For ten minutes.
Everine’s three children play outside on a swing. Inside, life and death seem to hang in the balance.
‘I have the results of your test,’ says Dyton, like a reality-television presenter. ‘And the result is…’ he pauses for dramatic effect, ‘negative.’
Everyone whoops with delight. ‘I’m very happy,’ beams Everine. ‘Truthfully speaking, I’m very, very happy. I didn’t know what the result was going to be.’

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In Kasarika, a village of 1,700 people in rural southern Malawi, there are more and more people like Everine, people who are escaping the AIDS pandemic. But this wasn’t always the case. Two years ago, the village was dying on its feet. One in four people were HIV+. The local vicar held at least four funerals every day, sometimes more.
Today, the prevalence rate has been axed, down to 15 per cent. The vicar reports that he can go for a month without burying anyone. So what brought about the change?
The answer comes from an unlikely quarter: the Church. The Good Samaritan project, run by Bible Society, originally started in Uganda in 2004.
Uganda is the poster child for success in reducing HIV. According to Avert, the international HIV and AIDS charity, the prevalence rate in Uganda has dropped from a peak of about 15 per cent in 1991 to seven per cent and is still falling.
Today, the project has changed the face of Kasarika and many more villages like it across Malawi. Some 12 per cent of Malawi’s population was HIV+ when the scheme began in 2010. Today, that figure has dropped to 10.6 per cent, but with an average life expectancy of just 49, there’s still has some way to go.
Using the biblical story of the Good Samaritan as its base, the programme teaches compassion for those who are suffering. It explains what HIV is, how it’s transmitted and why it’s important to get tested. Perhaps surprisingly for a faith-based initiative, it also encourages sexual gratification within marriage – as a means of increasing faithfulness and thus a reduction in the number of sexual partners – and the use of condoms. More than 365,000 people have heard this message over the past three years.

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One of them is 46-year-old Kasarika resident Hilda Ntiya. She heard all of this in 2010 and was ‘inspired’. ‘I knew I couldn’t keep quiet,’ she says. ‘I wanted to help other people who were suffering.’
Hilda is one of the 70 per cent of Malawians who live on less than US$2 per day. Yet, in the past two years, she has set up a one-room community centre and orphanage in Kasarika.
Some 111 of the village’s AIDS orphans live there. She’s seeing them all through school. Each day, she also feeds 45 AIDS widows and 145 elderly people whose families have died. It’s a basic meal of sima – maize flour mixed with water – but without it, many of these people wouldn’t eat at all. She also keeps an eye on the 399 people in the village who are HIV+.
Hilda has a personal reason for doing this; out of her ten siblings, eight have died of AIDS. ‘If we had had the Good Samaritan then,’ she says, ‘they would have lived.’ One of her remaining sisters is on anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs). Her nieces and nephews are HIV+.
She talks about how the village has changed. ‘Before we started, there was a lot of death,’ she says. ‘There was a lot of promiscuity and that led to a lot of quarrels and disputes.’
There was a sense of fatalism, too, she recalls. ‘Everyone was sleeping with each other and they thought that everyone was HIV+ and was going to die, so they might as well live like that.
‘Now, things have changed,’ she continues. ‘People know how to live positively. People used to have more than one wife, but that’s changed now. And most of the young people went for testing and are on ARVs. Without this, the village would have been wiped out.’

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The local vicar, the Reverend Stephen Baruti, saw the devastation at first hand, spending much of his time burying the dead. ‘It was soul destroying,’ he says. ‘We thought people were dying because of their sins. Now we know that they aren’t sinners. As a village, we have started loving one another.’
Clergy were part of the problem in Malawi before the Good Samaritan scheme began. According to a Bible Society of Malawi (BSM) survey [CARRIED OUT WHEN?], 60 per cent of the clergy believed that AIDS was a curse from God. That figure is now down to about five per cent.
‘If you have that kind of opinion coming from a church leader, it spreads,’ says Kamwana Muyaya, BSM’s director of programmes, who oversees the nationwide project. ‘Church leaders are well respected and everything they say is seen as God’s word. Everything they say goes. If a church leader holds that opinion, they spoil everyone else.
‘The Church has been judgmental in the past. It has been difficult for it to change,’ he continues. ‘The Good Samaritan project aims to remind the Church that it can play a role in the fight against HIV/AIDS. They can use scriptures as a tool in the fight against stigma. We’re reminding them that they are the right people to bring care and support to the people who are suffering.’

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Back in Kasarika, that’s exactly what’s happening. Old and young have gathered outside Hilda’s community centre for a performance of the Good Samaritan story.
Kamwana explains that drama, singing and storytelling are used deliberately. ‘In Africa, important messages are passed on through folklore and storytelling or parables,’ he says. ‘We don’t speak directly. When you do that, people don’t get the message. But put it in a proverb and it attracts people. Using drama and dance communicates a lot. It has been a successful technique.’
The performance begins dramatically – three robbers wielding fearsome two-foot-long knives attack a hapless traveler as he chats on his mobile phone. His phone and bag are stolen and he’s left for dead in a pool of blood.
A vicar and a churchgoer arrive, but they both hurry past, apparently scared that the police will charge them with murder or simply just reluctant to get involved. The audience is rapt.
Then, a woman turns up – an outsider. She heaves the injured man to his feet, wraps his wounds and takes him to the local hospital, where she pays for his treatment.
‘Where is the Good Samaritan today?’ says Hilda, rising to her feet after the actors have received a round of applause. ‘Don’t keep this information to yourself. Share it with others in your villages.
‘I’ve been tested and I’m negative,’ she adds. ‘But you can’t know if you are positive or negative unless you are tested. It’s important to go.’
In a village where 90 per cent of people are illiterate, storytelling is the best way to get ideas across. So there follows a second performance about the importance of getting tested.
Someone reads a poem they’ve written about being HIV+ and then everybody sings and dances to that well-known tune HIV has given me problems. ‘HIV has given me problems,’ they sing, clapping and blowing whistles. ‘Being unfaithful has brought a lot of problems for me. Let me be faithful. We have hope in Jesus, so although we have HIV, we have hope.’
But the show that brings the house down is the third performance, in which a couple discusses what gives them sexual pleasure. ‘I love it when you touch me on the chin,’ says the husband, to whoops of laughter from the crowd. ‘I love it when you touch me on the ear,’ says the wife. Everyone laughs, but they’ve got the message: have fun at home, not elsewhere, and you’ll reduce your chance of becoming HIV+.

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After the show, the audience receives a booklet entitled Love & Satisfaction, partly funded and produced by UKAid. It explains how to get and give sexual satisfaction, what makes good-quality sex, how to stay sexually healthy and the importance of condom use.
Twenty-eight year-old Bertha Chikaonda takes a copy home. For her, however, it’s too late. Her husband, Gomesi, worked in a bar and slept with the prostitutes who also worked there. They are both HIV+ now, bringing up four children – the eldest of whom is disabled – in a one-room house.
Gomesi says he felt ‘peer pressure’ at work and slept with prostitutes to be like his colleagues. ‘I didn’t plan it,’ he says. ‘But sometimes I just felt like it.’
Now he says that he finds it difficult to get work because of his HIV status. He does piece work in the fields, but it’s difficult to find enough money to feed the family.
Bertha recalls the ‘bitterness’ she felt towards Gomesi when she learned of her status. ‘I’ve got a disabled daughter to bring up,’ she says. ‘I was so worried about who was going to look after my children if I died. I’m an AIDS orphan myself. I know what it’s like. I was very worried and I had no hope.’
Today, they’re both on ARVs. The children eat every day at Hilda’s community centre. Bertha’s strength has returned and she’s able to farm, cook and collect water for the family. ‘I have the hope that I will live for a long time and see my children grow up,’ she says. But she doesn’t smile or look at her husband.

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As I leave, people are walking down the dusty, rutted track that leads to Kasarika. Word has spread that HIV tests are available. Rather than wait for the three testers to cycle to their homes, dozens of people are already coming to Everine’s house to be tested.
The fear, ignorance and stigma about HIV that once hung over the village has gone. No-one’s worried about being seen being tested; it’s a normal part of life now. ‘We’ll be here until it gets dark at six o’clock,’ says Dyton, waving me off.

Box: AIDS: the facts

• 34 million people around the world live with HIV, a rise of 17 per cent since 2001
• In 2010, the number of people dying of AIDS-related illnesses was 1.8 million, down from a peak of 2.2 million in the mid-2000s
• Two thirds of people living with HIV and AIDS are in Africa
• Some 59 per cent of people living with HIV are women in Sub-Saharan Africa
• In Malawi, 68,000 people (the population of Guildford) die each year from AIDS
• The country has 650,000 AIDS orphans
• The prevalence rate in Malawi has fallen from 12 per cent in 2010 to 10.6 per cent in 2012

hazel-southam

About Hazel

Hazel Southam is an award-winning journalist who reports on religious affairs, international development and the environment. She has covered four G8 Summits.

She wrote for The Sunday and Daily Telegraph for 10 years. Her work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, The Independent on Sunday, The Daily Mail and The Evening Standard.

Reporting assignments have taken her to places including Bosnia, Zimbabwe, Mongolia, Albania, Nagorno-Karabakh, Senegal and the Arctic Circle.

In the UK, she has also delivered media training to the MOD and leading businesses.

Contact Hazel