HIV-positive religious leaders break their silence
Admitting to being HIV-positive is a difficult task for anyone, but David Balubenze was faced with some special challenges as the pastor of Deliverance Church Nankandulo, in Kamuli, about 100km from the Ugandan capital, Kampala.
Balubenze knew he was HIV-positive for a year before he told church elders, and it was several more years before he informed his congregation.
“My fear was that if I tell them, maybe they will abandon the church,” Balubenze said.
The catalyst for his disclosure came after attending a 2004 meeting in Mukono, Uganda, of the African Network of Religious Leaders living with or personally affected by HIV/Aids (Anerela).
In Mukono, Balubenze met Anerela’s founder, Canon Gideon Byamugisha, who in 1992 became the first African religious leader to declare publicly that he was living with HIV.
Byamugisha started Anerela in 2003 with the goal of creating a support network for HIV-positive religious leaders that would help them discuss their status and inform their congregation about the virus.
By the end of 2006, Anerela had more than 2Â 000 members in 39 African countries. The Uganda chapter of Anerela (Unerela), has about 245 members, including at least 40 religious leaders who are living openly with HIV/Aids.
According to Gabriel Amori, the national coordinator of Unerela and a church deacon, Byamugisha’s groundbreaking disclosure has changed the way Ugandans think about Aids.
“HIV used to be seen as a disease caused by sin,” he said. “For Canon Gideon to boldly come out and say he is living with the virus was an indication that to have HIV/Aids is a disease like any other.”
Through Unerela, Balubenze learned more about the disease’s epidemiology, and how to approach HIV/Aids discussions with congregants and colleagues.
Before he made his disclosure in 2005, he asked his congregation a series of questions aimed at emphasising their own susceptibility to the virus. “All of us are at risk [from contracting HIV],” he told them.
Afterwards, Balubenze said many people in his church sought his advice. Some asked where and how to test for HIV, while others enquired about the side effects of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), implying that they too were living with HIV.
Religion and HIV education
About 85% of Africans belong to some kind of religious community, making places of worship ideal venues for HIV/Aids education.
“Christianity reaches more people than healthcare,” said Stephen Waititi, a former church deacon and the medical director of Milmay Centre, an HIV/Aids clinic in Kampala.
“When we train religious leaders, we train a nation,” Balubenze said. “Their words are final and whatever religious leaders tell their congregations is taken as truth.”
While religious leaders living with HIV/Aids in Uganda still face discrimination, Amori believes the situation has improved. “In the past, because of stigma, we’ve had religious leaders dying in silence,” he said.
Byamugisha recalled how some of his congregants had refused to accept communion from him after he first announced his status.
Some of the religious leaders belonging to Unerela are open about their HIV status with their family members and those close to them, but have still not disclosed to their congregants.
Recognising that it takes time for people to come to terms with their status, Unerela allows new members to join the organisation as religious leaders affected by HIV/Aids without having to disclose their own status.
Balubenze, however, now tries to be as public as possible about his status—even ensuring that his ARVs are delivered to his home in a well-marked car from The Aids Support Organisation, a local NGO providing HIV/Aids services.
He would like to see more religious leaders living openly with the virus. “If there is enough sensitisation and medicine,” he said, “the time will come when we say, ‘Once upon a time there was HIV/Aids.’”—Irin