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The Aids Pandemic and its Impact on Our People: Seeking Solutions and Solidarity in These Difficult Times

The Aids Pandemic and its Impact on Our People: Seeking Solutions and Solidarity in These Difficult Times

 Pastoral Letter of the Kenya Catholic Bishops

 December 1999


"…The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the people on our time, especially those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well." (Vatican Council II, Church in the Modern World, No.1)

We, your Bishops, address ourselves to you at this moment when Kenya is agonising with the rapid spread of the deadly virus causing AIDS. We are anxious to use this occasion to examine the situation in our country and to make some practical proposals in order to promote the fight against AIDS in Kenya. Yet it is in times of such deep suffering that people sometimes begin to see more clearly and move towards solutions with greater confidence.

Our aim is to encourage individuals, families, groups, and all people of good will to have a deep and practical concern to promote the common good and to look for lasting solutions which affirm the human person and his/her true welfare.

HIV/AIDS leaves no person unaffected, no heart unmoved, no nation unshaken. We therefore wish to affirm our solidarity with you, our people in these days when sorrow, fear, and a sense of helplessness, and of having been totally abandoned, grip many households.

The Current State of the Epidemic

The Ministry of Health in its strategic plan for 1999-2004 states that since the beginning of this epidemic in 1984 a projected 760,000 of our brothers and sisters had developed AIDS and that most of these have since died. The ministry further informs us that this year alone 200,000 people are projected to die of AIDS – that is 500 people daily. The total now infected is estimated at 2,000,000 but may be more due to under-reporting. The number of orphans due to AIDS alone has risen steadily from about 200,000 in 1990 to 700,000 by this year. Socio-economically, the epidemic causes a loss of about 200 million daily – a cost not including lost hours of work and worsening of the poverty of an already impoverished populace. AIDS will also have a great impact of the population growth which may stagnate and even reverse if the eight million Kenyans projected to die of AIDS by 2002 do in fact die. Eight million is about one-third of our entire population. We wish to remind our people that no country can develop without people. We are indeed facing a National Emergency. In the face of these statistics we wish to affirm the following:

Way of Slowing the Spread of HIV/AIDS

The Church, while upholding fundamental views regarding human sexuality and its valid expression, is willing to work with all people of good will to find ways and means of slowing, if not arresting this epidemic.

We extend our support to all valid and ethic scientific efforts to find ways of controlling the disease – always keeping in mind the ultimate dignity of the human person. Ways should urgently be found to make medicines which lessen the impact of the disease and which lengthen life and improve its quality available and affordable to the poorer countries of the world. We call upon pharmaceutical companies to match their right to compensation with the great human need and the scant resources available to our people.

Stigma of HIV/AIDS

We are particularly distressed by the stigma attached to people living with AIDS and their families. We call upon all Christians to overcome any prejudice they feel towards AIDS victims. Even when contracted through immoral behavior and we know it can be contracted through other ways – AIDS as a disease is not different from cancer or malaria. Like other diseases, AIDS causes suffering and death.

Looking at AIDS patients as sinners condemned by God, as if we had the right to judge them, wickedly distorts reality. Only a hypocrite would think that way. We know for a fact that even infants and faithful spouses have contracted AIDS. Are we going to be like those who once asked Christ, pointing at the man born blind, “Rabbi, who sinned? This man or his parents, for him to have been born blind?” Remember Jesus’ answer, “Neither he nor his parents sinned. He was born blind so that the works of God might be displayed in him”(Jn 9: 2-3)

We have no need to fear, AIDS means much suffering and hence we should not look down upon those who suffer. Rather, as the Apostle wrote, “There must be no passing of premature judgment. Leave that until the Lord comes: he will light up all that is hidden in the dark and reveal the secret intentions of men’s hearts.” (1 Cor 4:5)

Far from encouraging passivity, this outlook urges us to act decisively, and more so in these times when there is nothing doctors can do, as yet, to cure AIDS. For those who have no hope in a future life, AIDS will seem a curse, and a good reason to keep a safe distance from those who have it. For those with Christian Faith, it is an encounter with grace, prompting us to be generous and to love others as Christ loves us- even at a risk to our own lives.

Families

We recognise that in these days of harsh economic realities compounded by the epidemic, families are going through very hard times indeed. Many uncles, aunts, grandparents have had to take in orphaned children of brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. Many families have lost more than one member- often the very ones who provided support for their families. We know that many families are being stretched to the limit and some have collapsed under the weight- with children being left to their own devices, to fend for themselves as best they can.

However, it is to the family that we all turn in times of trouble and we ask all to rally together to help one another in providing care for the sick and help for the orphan. Many solutions will have to come from the people themselves- not only from the Government, the Church or NGO’s.

Married couples are exhorted to provide the example of faithfulness to one another. This will help their children find the strength to make the right choices as they try to navigate their way through courtship and marriage during these critical and difficult times. Those contemplating marriage are exhorted to seek premarital counseling and HIV testing should they have the slightest cause for suspicion. A certificate of good health to the beloved is a true sign of love rather than blindly entering into relationship that can only lead to catastrophe for all concerned.

Gender Related Aspects of HIV/AIDS

It is now clear that women have borne the brunt of the epidemic especially young girls in their teens who are now three times more likely to get the virus than their male counterparts- as older men turn to younger girls in a futile and selfish attempt to escape the virus.

Women are also prone to poverty, to discrimination, poor education and lack of career choices all of which make them prone to get infected with HIV, and once infected, to progress rapidly to the fatal stages. Women also undertake the rigours of pregnancy and child bearing while being underfed and duty-bound to work long hours to fulfill their domestic chores. Abandoned women with children are also likely to turn to providing sexual favours in exchange for money and upkeep.

Our hearts also go out to these persons who though faithful, have been infected by their unfaithful spouses. Husband or wife has the right to refuse sexual intercourse should they have reasonable grounds to suspect that their spouse is infected or is behaving in a manner to suggest that infection is likely. We recommend medical testing preceded by counseling.

We reaffirm our determination to continue supporting efforts to better the condition of women especially by providing education, training opportunities and income generating activities.

To the Youth

We recognise that the young are both idealistic and restless. They yearn for justice, honesty and truth and shun hypocrisy. They are full of energy and long for a chance to contribute to the welfare of our Nation. Yet it is young people who are most terribly affected by this epidemic- usually after undergoing costly education and vigorous training to acquire skills and technical competence. This epidemic will surely only abate when our youth discover that self-control is possible, that life is worth living, that reason can control passion. They must be at the helm to lead us all away from certain traditions which have long ceased to be useful and which are in fact down-right dangerous- here we include female circumcision (clitoridectomy and infibulation), wife-inheritance of the sort which demands sexual cleansing or other sexual contact rather than the socio-economic care of widows and orphans; as well as ritual male circumcision with unsterilised instruments.

To the Christian Communities

In a spirit of faith and hope we challenge you, members of all Christian communities, to support those among you with HIV/AIDS. Be actively involved in trying to help them to help themselves. Remember that AIDS is not just an individual sickness but it affects the entire community- it must therefore be largely addressed by the community.

We thank God that we have wonderful examples of individuals, groups and communities which are really helping people with HIV/AIDS.

They are true witness of His love. We are all called upon to develop similar attitudes and to get involved so that society may do what it can to assist both those infected and the affected, accepting them and helping them discover a new quality of life as they cope with their situation.

To Our Civic Authorities

The presence of HIV/AIDS in the world and in our Country in particular, is a tragedy that puts into sharp focus the responsibility of our civic authorities toward the Kenyans. AIDS kills young economically productive people, brings hardship to families, increases expenditure on healthcare and adversely affects the country’s development. By depriving the economy of qualified and productive labour force, restricting the tax base, and raising the demand for social services due to increased demands of orphaned children, widows and the cost of health care, HIV/AIDS poses a great challenge to Kenya’s development managers.

We commend our civic leaders for the measures so far put in place to control the AIDS pandemic. In order to overcome the challenges placed before us by AIDS, we urge a strong political commitment at the highest level, the implementation of multisectoral AIDS prevention and control strategy with priority focus on mobilizing for financing both AIDS prevention and care of the sick.

We must concentrate our efforts on educating and informing our people on prevention. It is necessary for informing our people on prevention. It is necessary for information to be disseminated prudently and responsibly to avoid ungrounded certainties or needless fears. Through education and accurate information and support, our people have the capacity and free will to change their sexual behaviour. In spite of all the propaganda, the condom has known and recognized shortcomings. Indeed by focusing ourselves solely on this measure, we shall arrive at the mistaken conviction that by virtue of the condom the risks of infection are eliminated.

Some local groups and some heavily funded international agencies promote such measures, specifically targeting youth, knowing that sex before marriage and sex outside of marriage are the primary causes of the rapid spread of AIDS. Such groups should desist from misleading people especially the youth who have yet to form a standard of reference against which they can measure any given information. We would like our youth to be reminded that true love waits.

Official reports from health agencies claim that many youth are already sexually active. All the more reason, if it is true, why we must evangelize, spreading the Good News that purity is possible. If the majority of our children were to acquire a habit of stealing, we would not teach them how to avoid getting caught. We would teach them justice. “If you want to live without being afraid… you must live honestly…” (Rom 13:3).

AIDS is a greater problem in poorer countries because of their poverty. The spread of the disease is not only a medical issue but also a social dilemma. Containing the spread of AIDS lies partly on a nation’s ability to deal with the infectious nature of the virus. It is difficult to live a moral and upright life when you have no proper house, no school to educate teenage children, no security from thieves, no means of finding stable employment. It is all the more difficult when idle resources remain under the tight control of a few who selfishly monopolise what was meant for the benefit of all. Unless people have reason to live and the prospect of seeing their honest work bear fruit, why should they worry about death?

Perhaps the AIDS crisis tells us how poor we have become and not, as some suppose, how ignorant people are.

To the Media

We call upon our journalists and men and women of the mass media, parents and other educators to be responsible in the type of information that is offered to our people. Despite the known casual association between AIDS and promiscuity, the Media, be it in print, radio, television, videos, and films have perpetrated pornography in a completely irresponsible way. This has helped fuel pre-marital sex and infidelity causing the run away epidemic of AIDS.

In particular the condom advertisement directed at the youth show total disregard for truth as well as being offensive and in poor taste. The truth is that the condom has recognised failure rates as a contraceptive (up to 40% in studies including some done right here in Nairobi). It is also known to burst or tear and spillage is common. Latex rubber from which condoms are made does have pores through which viral sized particles can squeeze through during intercourse. These facts must be brought to the attention of our people whenever the condom is being discussed. At least if they know the risks- they will not expose themselves in foolhardy belief that they are protected.

We understand that behaviour-change can be difficult and some people are caught in situations from which there is no easy escape. But the real backbone of AIDS control is abstinence and fidelity. This is also for the greater benefit of all and especially for strengthening love in the family which suffers when spouses are unfaithful.

To the Clergy and Religious

The Catholic Church has a long tradition of reaching out to people not only in times of joy but also in moments of tragedy and crisis.

“………the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well” (Vatican II, Church in the Modern World, No. 1).

We the Clergy and religious, must do all we can to help our people. We should be actively involved with them and their families. Let us help the patients to cope with guilt and self-accusation. The Lord Jesus is especially present in the weak, the sick and those suffering from AIDS, in whom we should recognise the face of the suffering Christ. They need our love and concern. The spiritual and pastoral care of these patients and their relatives is truly our duty. We should work alongside others, doctors, nurses, families and lay people to ensure a comprehensive plan for the treatment and care of the sick.

We have all known cases where only minimal medical treatment was possible for an AIDS victim, for whatever reason. Faced with the enormous suffering of such patients, priests need to redouble their efforts to comfort the dying through counseling, prayer and whenever the case applies, the administration of the sacraments of the sick especially the sacrament of reconciliation. Our mission is to prepare the patient to die in peace and meet our Lord Jesus Christ with a pure heart and a burning desire to live with him forever in heaven.

At times this calls for extraordinary composure and heroic courage. God gives us the necessary grace to be strong in the face of trouble. Like the Good Samaritan, we pour out the balm of God’s forgiveness on their spiritual wounds, caring for the ones others have abandoned and the ones whose families can do nothing to help.

As Pastors we should also redouble our efforts in forming the faithful in chastity and fidelity on and off the pulpit. The catechesis of youth must be deep and thorough. We must stand firmly against the immorality, pornography, corruption and injustice. We must teach clearly about the true nature of the condom.

To Health Care Workers

The cost of health care for AIDS patients is prohibitive. Even simple palliative measures are not available for most infected people. All family savings are being used to care for the sick further weakening the nation and domestic economy. The triple therapy drug regime now available to people in the West costs about Kshs. 50,000 a month and is out of reach of the great majority of our people. Treatable disease such as malaria, typhoid and diarrhea will suffer as funds are directed to AIDS related problems.

We appreciate what health care professionals all over the world and here at home are doing in this area. This disease is a profound challenge to us all, but more so to our health care workers. It calls forth in you a strong sense of Christian dedication, compassion, care and concern for your patients. You are real witnesses of a helping love. Let us look to the healing of the “whole person.".

We urge you to practice a holistic approach to the treatment of your patients, which responds not only to medical and physical needs but also to spiritual and emotional ones. We urge as many of those who are for the souls and bodies of our people to arm themselves with greater understanding of the disease and basic counseling skills.

To Teachers and Educators

A large number of young people throughout Kenya attend school or are in contact with those who do. Information, values and skills conveyed in schools can thus have considerable impact on their lives. Young people need to be urgently informed adequately and responsibly about HIV/AIDS; and they need to be helped to develop upright morals and psychosocial skills such as building high self-esteem and respect for others. They also need encouragement to act on their knowledge and to communicate it to others. Specifically, our educational programmes must help them to maintain healthy behaviour and to change of avoid behaviour that puts themselves or others at risk. This must in no way be confused with a value-free sex-education as proposed by some and against which we have consistently spoken and which merely deals with ways of avoiding disease or pregnancy. Indeed parents, teachers, Religious organisations and all people of good will have both the right and duty to ensure that materials used for AIDS education are both accurate and morally sound.

Our teachers and other educators need to acknowledge that some students are likely to have been infected with HIV already. These students have a severe medical condition that needs to be addressed as soon as possible, even if symptoms have not yet appeared. More importantly they need to know that we do not reject them, that we want to help them and that there is hope- especially if we can help them turn to God and seek strength for the road that lies ahead.

There is another important fact for teachers and educators: statistics show that teenage girls are three times more likely than boys to be infected with HIV. The girls need to learn skills for dealing with predatory men: how to say “No,” how to recognise dangerous situations, and how to avoid them.

The Catholic Church firmly believes that in order to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS it is necessary to educate our people, especially the youth in and out of school about the great benefits and value of abstinence and fidelity. All other paths would prove to be only uncertain and often treacherous.

We commit ourselves to expanding and strengthening our Pastoral Care Programmes for youth in and out of school to bring the life saving message of chastity to them. In the words of King Solomon, “Son, do not forget what I teach you. Always remember what I tell you to do. My teachings with give you a long and prosperous life” (Prv 3: 1-2).

In informing our young people in schools, we recommend that this be done in collaboration with parents and other members of the community. This will ensure that the HIV/AIDS education is given within the context of the traditions, beliefs, faith, values, behavioural and educational norms of a particular community. A purely secular approach to giving information without a sound moral backup would not provide the youth with the strength they need to achieve and uphold a behavioural change. Indeed under the assumption that our people are incapable of self-control and cannot therefore change, national and international resources have not been utilized to teach morality and upright behaviour. The huge amounts going into condom distribution however, cause us to wonder whether the real purpose of the whole exercise is not population control rather than AIDS prevention. Commercialization of AIDS at the expense of the lives of our people has been allowed- condoms manufacturing is in fact a multibillion shilling industry. Yet the epidemic continues unabated despite the massive increase in the use of condoms.

The Way Forward

We, your Shepherds, are aware of the problems people now face and are vitally interested in their solution. In the past, as is generally recognised, the Church has played a major role in the development of education and health care in the country. Always with deep respect for the dignity of the human person, the Church will continue to develop health-care services so that these do indeed become the expression of genuine care for the true well-being of our people in their distress and suffering.

  1. The Catholic Church has 2,000 years of experience in human behaviour, from the days of pagan Rome to the sexual revolution of this century. We therefore feel that it is our urgent duty to share this with all people of good will and diverse religions. The great good of human sexuality is capable of giving both joy and life-bonding to those called to marriage and to transmitting life to another generation. But sex can also lead to much sorrow and suffering. We therefore urge all religious communities and people of good will to look in to themselves in order to strengthen themselves and others to pursue the good and shun evil.

  2. Indeed sexuality cannot be removed from the totality of the human social life. If a society is corrupt, violent, brutal and careless of the dignity of persons, then the sexual urge will also follow similar avenues to find expression in ways that are harmful and destructive. The greater percentage of infection with HIV result from sexual behaviour- it is therefore here that change of heart, attitude and behaviour must come urgently, but where possible accompanied by change in the way we treat one another in all other spheres of life. Once again we urge married to remain faithful and the unmarried abstinent-both these virtues are aspects of love: for God and for neighbor.

  3. The Church will intensify Pastoral Programmes for youth in and out of school aimed at assisting the youth to understand their growth and development and how to handle their sexuality in a responsible manner.

  4. The Church through her Parishes and Small Christian Communities will collate information countrywide regarding the situation of AIDS orphaned children and collaborate with the Government, Donor community, NGOs and other well-wishers with the view to give assistance to these children to continue with schooling or any other appropriate assistance.

Conclusion

In concluding, we wish to express our hope that in these difficult times, the human spirit will find ways to conquer the ravages of this disease which poses such a challenge to all. Working together with all concerned, we hope to alleviate in all ways possible the moral, physical and spiritual suffering caused by this disease. We therefore exhort you in the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, “Fear not, I am the first and the last; I am the living one! I was dead, but now I am alive forever and ever. I have authority over death and the world of the dead” (Rv 1:17-18).

We bless you and remain,
Yours devotedly in Christ,

Rt. Rev. John Njue, Bishop of Embu (Chairman)
Rt. Rev. Cornelius K. Arap Korir, Bishop of Eldoret (Vice Chairman)
Most Rev. John Njenga, Archbishop of Mombasa
Most Rev, Raphael S. Ndingi Mwana’a Nzeki, Archbishop of Nairobi
Most Rev, Zacchaeus Okoth, Archbishop of Kishumu
Most Rev. Nicodemus Kirima, Archbishop of Nyeri
Rt Rev. Philip Sulumeti, Bishop of Kakamega
Rt. Rev. Urbanus Kioko, Bishop of Machakos
Rt. Rev. Silas Njiru, Bishop of Meru
Rt. Rev. Colin Davies, Bishop of Ngong
Rt Rev. John Mahon, Bishop of Lodwar
Rt. Rev. Ambrose Ravasi, Bishop of Marsabit
Rt. Rev. Peter Kairo, Bishop of Nakuru
Rt. Rev. Paul Darmanin, Bishop of Garissa
Rt. Rev. Linus Okok, Bishop of Homa Bay
Rt. Rev. Joseph Mairura, Bishop of Kisii
Rt. Rev. Boniface Lele, Bishop of Kitui
Rt. Rev. Philip Anyolo, Bishop of Kericho
Rt. Rev. Luigi Locati, Bishop of Isolo Vicariate