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5/29/97 Uganda church offers haven from sweeping AIDS crisis

KAMPALA, Uganda (BP)–The three women bowed their heads in prayer.
Robina Namuli, 33, Prossy Gwokyalya, 31, and Justine Nakiwala, 45, have AIDS. They know it will claim their lives, and they have accepted that.
The three are participants in Kampala Baptist Church’s AIDS ministry. They came on this Saturday evening for fellowship and for emotional support from one another and from their Christian God.
They live in a country where acquired immune deficiency syndrome is rampant.
Last year, Uganda ranked fifth in the world in the number of reported AIDS cases, according to the World Health Organization. About 14 percent of Uganda’s adults are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, according to WHO estimates based on 1994 figures, the latest available.
Many people have AIDS and don’t know it because they have never been tested, said Mark Pierce, a Southern Baptist missionary who is an infectious diseases specialist at Makerere University Medical School in Kampala. Most don’t want to know they have the disease.
“More than half of the people we admit are positive even though most aren’t tested,” Pierce said.
AIDS is so common here there’s no stigma, said Linda Rice, a Southern Baptist missionary who works with the Kampala church’s AIDS ministry.
The Uganda AIDS Commission reports the 20-30 age group is especially hard hit, and the deaths of so many child-rearing people have left the country with more than 500,000 orphans.
Caring for the children often falls to grandparents, because in many cases, aunts and uncles also have died of AIDS. Other children live on the streets, making out the best they can.
Polygamy, long a part of Ugandan culture, is partly responsible for the spread of AIDS in the country. “It seems like half of the men we admit have two wives,” Pierce said. “They will have a wife in one town and another in a different town.”
In addition to adult-to-adult transmission of the disease, between 25 percent and 35 percent of infants born to HIV-infected women become infected before or during birth or through breast-feeding.
Certain segments of the population have especially high AIDS rates. About 60 percent of the military has AIDS and 20 to 25 percent of young adults in cities, Pierce said.
“You see people you know, in all likelihood, will die despite anything you do,” he said. “You do what you can and try not to pull back from the patient.”
One way Uganda is attacking the AIDS problem is with a campaign focusing on sexual fidelity in marriage and abstinence outside marriage. The program, True Love Waits, was started by Southern Baptists in the United States in 1993. Now it is used by other denominations and in countries around the world.
“We go into schools and talk with students and use demonstrations,” said Andrew Mwenge (mWANG), head of Uganda’s True Love Waits program. Converted to Christianity through a Baptist student group in 1981, Mwenge, now 36, has been a pastor at the Kampala church seven years.
Ugandan girls begin having sex around 12 years of age and boys when they are about 14, he said.
“We try to get them to sign a commitment card promising not to have sex before marriage and not to have sex with anyone but their marriage partner. We know the program is effective from the letters we get from people telling how this is helping them,” he said. About 16,300 signed cards have been returned.
Kampala Baptist Church has low-energy activities, such as making handbags and belts, that generate income for people with AIDS. The patients also grow mushrooms, which are sold for about $4 for one kilo, said Patrick Galabuzi (Gahla-BOOZ-e) who heads the AIDS ministry.
People who participate in the Saturday AIDS group come for fellowship and for food, clothing and medication, Galabuzi said. “We talk with them and give them comfort.”
Nakiwala, one of the women in the group praying this Saturday morning, isn’t sure how long she has had AIDS. Her husband died from the disease in 1993.
She sells fruit and vegetables in a market to earn money. She worries about what will happen to the youngest of her five children. The children range in age from 10 to 20. “I have nothing to leave them,” Nakiwala said. “I’m trying to build a small house for the children.”
Said Namuli: “I try to be brave, to be strong and to just live with AIDS. There’s nothing I can do about it.
“Life goes on.”

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  • Alberta Lindsey