MBABANE, Swaziland (BP)–The young girl listens intently to the guest speaker. A boy sitting behind pulls her ponytail. She turns to make a face at him and then adjusts the beaded band holding the ponytail in place.
If her father found out a boy touched it, she could get in big trouble. As long as she is wearing the blue and yellow headpiece, boys and men are not supposed to touch her.
The ponytail, known as “umchwasho” (oom-chw-ah-show), looks like a large tassel connected to a strand of beads. It announces to all that she is a virgin. The band requires girls to abstain from sex or from even kissing someone from the opposite sex.
The age-old Swazi custom is back with hopes of it eradicating the HIV/AIDS pandemic. International Mission Board missionary Mary Wood hopes the umchwasho works as a reminder to save sex for marriage, but she knows this symbol alone will not stamp out the deadly virus. Wood spends her days promoting God’s way of preventing HIV/AIDS in schools, hospitals and churches.
The retired Houston nurse left her home in Texas after hearing how AIDS was wiping out an entire generation of Africans. What she found in Swaziland was not exactly what she expected. In the news, AIDS in Africa is shown as emaciated people wasting away in the hospital.
“It’s kind of strange that you don’t see people like that here,” Wood said. “So many have HIV and you don’t even know it.”
You don’t see it in the streets or homes. Yet all the United Nations reports say HIV is here. This small kingdom has so much of it that Swaziland is ranked second among all African countries for HIV infection.
AIDS, nicknamed the “slimming disease” because of the vast weight loss it inevitably causes, might be better named the “hidden disease” in Swaziland. Everyone knows HIV is there. Street vendors talk on and on about the problem, yet no one seems to personally know someone with the disease. They say, “Everyone here is healthy looking.”
Looks can be deceiving, though.
“Most people think if you’re HIV-positive, you must be skinny and look like a walking ghost,” one youth says. “But that’s not true. I have had HIV for two years and I look just like my peers.”
Statistics show that almost 43 percent of those between the ages of 20 and 29 are already HIV-positive. More than 25 percent of youth under the age of 20 also test positive for HIV.
AIDS is a problem on the rise. While you cannot see the drastic physical changes at first glance in this small country of 900,000 people, you can see the social and economic problems related to the disease right off.
What you can see are orphans, widows and families struggling to survive and grandparents who are raising 10 or more grandchildren orphaned by the dreaded disease. You can see the international sign for AIDS Awareness, a red ribbon, in the beaded artwork in the marketplace. The red ribbon is even a permanent fixture on the cover of the national magazine.
Everyone is aware of the problem, but no one deals with it or even recognizes it.
“No one ever admits to it if they do know they have AIDS or HIV,” Wood said.
“But mainly, most people just don’t know because they won’t get tested.”
Government prevention campaigns tout the ABCs all over town. The signs exhort its citizens to “Abstain, Be Faithful and Condomize.” Most have never heard of the biblical ABCs Wood teaches. She teaches “Abstain, Be faithful to your marriage partner and follow Christ.”
Most health agencies never bring in the love of Jesus Christ as a way of prevention. But Wood feels that is the only way AIDS will be beat. God is the only way to have enough willpower to remain pure until marriage and during marriage. Just doing this is breaking cultural customs.
“They say 100 percent of girls have sex before marriage just to prove that they are fertile. It is also an accepted practice here for boys to experiment sexually,” Wood said. “It’s also accepted practice for men to have mistresses.”
Wood spends a lot of her time visiting schools, especially high schools and middle schools, in hopes that the leaders of tomorrow will be the ones to break the silence.
As a question and answer period begins, the youth ask if white people get HIV or not. The students sit silently, hearing every word Wood says.
It’s during these sessions where the massive burden of AIDS on this country is seen best. Every student in the room has a personal story about how AIDS has affected their own family. The stories are so commonplace, but they are almost never talked about except in rare cases like Wood visiting.
When one student ventures to ask if it is true that you can get rid of AIDS if you sleep with a virgin, all ears perk up. Just the previous week, news reports spoke of a father with AIDS having sex with his infant daughter because the local witch doctor told him to. Child abuse like that is common.
“That’s a good question,” Wood answers. “It is a lie. If you are HIV-positive and you give it to another person, you are killing that person. Once you have HIV, you can’t get rid of it.”
She explains to the students over and over how an HIV virus is so small that millions of them can sit on the head of a pin — and thousands can seep through the smallest holes in condoms. Most are surprised when she tells them AIDS cannot be 100 percent prevented by using condoms.
“If I wanted to be rich, I would have stayed in America and invested in a condom company,” she tells a group of middle-schoolers. “But I care for you and don’t want you to get sick. That’s why I’m here to talk to you about HIV and answer any of your questions.
“I’d like to see you change the fate of your country. With the strength of Jesus Christ, you have the power to do it.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: ENCOURAGER, A LIFE-OR-DEATH ISSUE, WORDS OF WARNING, HANDS OFF and WHAT HOPE DO THEY HAVE?
— Meet the missionaries of the Swazi people group team: http://members.aol.com/xblinkemx/swazi/index.htm.
— Learn more about evangelism and church planting in Swaziland: http://www.imb.org/resources/yourguide/yg-s.htm#SWAZILAND.
— The Unfinished Task: Planting with Passion: http://www.imb.org/ime/Planting/Unfinished/theme.htm.
— International missions media gallery! http://www.imb.org/ime/gallery.htm.