NIAMEY, Niger (BP) -- Timbuktu. The name inspires images of far-away lands, mythical realms and immense wealth. Many people are unaware the city actually exists.Timbuktu was among a myriad of splendid cities within the Songhai Empire, which ruled most of central West Africa for more than two centuries, supported by a flourishing trade in gold and salt. "They were a rare combination of military and mystic might," says John Smythe*, an IMB missionary who's been working among the Songhai of Niger since 2006. They had great warriors along with sorcerers and magicians who claimed to control the spirits, including those of the Niger River, Smythe recounts. Ruled by a dynasty of Muslim kings, the empire expanded through a combination of pragmatic politics and holy war. The meteoric rise of the empire was matched by its sudden invasion and downfall in 1591. Today's Songhai are mainly subsistence farmers, coaxing millet and rice out of the clay of the river valley. It's a land of flat-topped hills and wide washed-out valleys, with deep rain-cut channels between. Pale red clay and dark brown stone contrast oddly, like a bizarre sand painting. "Community is life" Songhai villages consist of mud-brick houses; walls surround spacious, if bare, yards. Trash litters the streets -- there is no other place for it. Animals wander wherever acacia fences do not keep them out. Village life is highlighted by scent. The heat bakes out the odor of moist sand and green growth. The smell of sweat and wood smoke is prevalent. "Community is life" to the Songhai, Smythe says. "They understand that tomorrow 'I might not have enough rice to feed my family, so I'd better rely on the community.'" While officially Muslim, the Songhai generally practice animism -- alongside daily prayers and reciting the Quran. "There's still spirit-possession ceremonies. ... They are involved in all sorts of witchcraft," Smythe says. Less than 1 percent of the Songhai are Christian.
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. 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.