Rodney Schofield reflects on faith, Aids and the future
In the middle of Zomba is a government-funded poster of a young woman brushing off a young man, apparently on heat, with the words No condom, No way. The irony is that this poster is next to the entrance of the main Presbyterian Church in town, and all the churches of Malawi are solidly opposed to the condom culture, believing that it simply encourages people to be promiscuous, namely, that it sends out a crystal clear message: it’s OK if you’re careful. Unfortunately, not all our visitors and partners from overseas (Anglicans included) respect the Churches’ position here, and some have even campaigned blatantly against it, thus undermining the work being done.
What are the official facts and figures of HIV infection in Malawi? With a current prevalence of 16% it is estimated that 20–25% of men and women currently employed in the urban-based sector (where the prevalence rate is much higher) will die by the year 2005. The number of those being orphaned is currently 70,000 per annum but is likely to triple over the next ten years. (The result of a recent health survey indicates that in extra-marital or casual liaisons condom use is around 30%: a growing attitude among the young, in knowledge of the rapidly declining life-expectancy – now around 37 – is simply, Let us eat, drink and be merry – with sex – for tomorrow we die.)
Every sector of life is affected here. All the public utilities suffer staffing casualties and absences, reducing whatever pretence at efficiency they may have boasted. Men and women working for private employers begin to lose their stamina, and have to give up a precious job – abandoning their one source of income. Every family known to us, understood in Africa always as an extended family, has a number of orphans in their care. So our ordinands may be looking after two, three, four or more nephews and nieces. There may be perhaps 200 orphans in a small village, or 600–700 in a large one: so that no longer is it possible for the family network to cope. Orphanages are springing up: some well-managed with an attempt to provide sound training in life skills, but others possibly exploiting the situation for personal gain. Feeding these mouths is never easy, and our ordinands’ wives need to learn sewing or some other craft in order to make ends meet.
Almost every day in chapel our Principal announces the absence of students or staff who have gone to attend a funeral. It has seriously affected the teaching programme to a degree not noticed in the previous year. One day recently fifteen lectures were cancelled as seven out of the nine full-time members of staff were absent. And of course AIDS hits the Churches and their leaders seemingly as much as it hits non-churchgoers. Priests and ministers have died, as have their wives, although people will usually speak of TB as the killer. A colleague looking through old college photographs was stunned to realise how possibly a quarter of those in training in the mid-1980s are now dead. Although HIV testing is carried out before students reach us, we cannot assume that we in college have a complete bill of health. One of the pressures upon us has been the rapid expansion of our numbers, without an equivalent expansion of married quarters. Men here without their wives for one or even two years are exposed to temptation. Pray for them, pray for us all here to be faithful to our calling.
In Dr Banda’s time, AIDS did not officially exist. There were notices at the airports asking visitors not to bring it into the country. But then, under his regime, droughts and crop failure never happened either, and anyone voicing criticism was liable to be thrown to the crocodiles. Public acknowledgement of the situation was much slower in coming than, say, in Uganda, which has made significant reductions in its rate of infection. Only now are AIDS care schemes getting off the ground in Malawi, along with massive attempts at public education. At a major conference in February 2001 the churches and the government agreed to cooperate much more fully, despite different emphases: so that there are posters now as well which proclaim the message, Malawians – change your behaviour.
A hopeless situation? Let me mention one remarkable initiative that is bearing much fruit – and is even finding an export market in other parts of Africa. The WHY WAIT? programme has been growing for several years under the inspired guidance of two American missionaries in Zomba. They came here to teach in the university, after many years’ experience as lecturers in the States, very well qualified in areas of child development and counselling. Now their university classes are bursting at the seams, with a majority of men in attendance (but not at present: the government has as usual misspent its overseas aid on, for example, its entertainment allowance, so the university, along with the schools of nursing, is closed indefinitely). The greater impact is in secondary schools up and down the country, many of which have now adopted the three-year WHY WAIT? syllabus. In one such school, in the year before its introduction there were over 80 unwanted teenage pregnancies. Because of the Christian commitment of the head teacher to the new programme and the dedication of his teachers, within two years that figure was reduced to one only.
Thank God for his blessings to us. The Gospel we preach, and try to live, is not a tired and out-of-date message that might prompt us to revise our church’s moral code in line with modern thinking. It is the power of God to save.
Rodney Schofield teaches at Zomba Theological College, Malawi
A colleague looking through old college photographs was stunned to realise how possibly a quarter of those in training in the mid 1980s are now dead.