Monday, February 27, 2006

Pastor Nelson

February 22, 2006, Wednesday. 11:38pm.

Yesterday was a full day of giving talks on HIV/AIDS. First we addressed
about a hundred guardians of vulnerable children sponsored by a local church
and NGO, and ended up stimulating a lively discussion about whether it�s
actually possible to abstain completely from sex to avoid getting HIV. (The
verdict: no, because men always cheat and women aren�t allowed to tell their
husbands that she doesn�t want to have sex or that he needs to use a

Then we addressed some members of another church whose pastor had approached
me last week asking me to conduct some seminars on HIV/AIDS for his
congregation. We asked him what kind of AIDS information he has been
incorporating into his sermons.

�As Christians we believe that AIDS is a punishment from God,� he told us
last week. When we asked why he believed this, he could only say, after a
lot of awkward pauses and false starts, that God punishes you with AIDS if
you�ve broken one of his laws, like being unfaithful or not using a condom.
Using a condom is a law of God?

Hillary and I were a bit distraught about this man�s apparent confusion, so
yesterday before our presentation we sat Pastor Nelson down for a little
chat. Nelson is about 25, and still figuring out his own value system. Not
the best condition to be in when trying to be a steadfast moral and thought
leader in your community.

�Why do you believe AIDS is a punishment from God?� Hillary asked. �Isn�t it
possible for someone to get AIDS who didn�t commit any sin, like a woman who
is infected by her husband who has been unfaithful?�

�Yes, but if you read the book of Job�� Nelson said.

�I knew you were going to quote Job, and you know that�s wrong, don�t you?�
Hillary said. I was so proud of him, and I didn�t even know what he was
talking about. �As a pastor you must know that Job is talking about God
punishing Christians in history, not about AIDS.�

At this point I lost them. Hillary knows his Bible, apparently, so I let him
argue the poor pastor into a corner. I only started talking to Pastor Nelson
recently (in fact I only learned his name last week, even though I used to
walk past his tailoring shop everyday and wave) but unlike other pastors
I�ve met here, he has an open mind, a realistic outlook (�Pastors are human,
too. We can cheat on our wives and we can get AIDS,�) and he�s in touch with
youth culture in the village.

He invited us to conduct a seminar on AIDS in his hometown, near Lake
Victoria. A bishop from his area recently committed suicide after
discovering he was HIV positive, and the news hit Nelson pretty hard. He
started wondering why the stigma against AIDS was so severe that someone
would rather kill himself than face the social disgrace that would surely
follow if his community were to find out. Nelson decided it was time to give
his people the straight facts, so that they would know about AIDS and begin
talking about it, and maybe the next time someone discovered she was
positive, the community would be prepared to support her socially,
emotionally and otherwise.

Anyway, Nelson�s compassion was genuine, but so was his collection of
muddled misconceptions about AIDS, which he had been sharing with his
congregation. I think Hillary�s conversation got him thinking, though, and
he was really receptive to the information in our presentation.

Nelson also told us that one of the biggest obstacles to stopping the spread
of AIDS in his hometown are all the traditions that his tribe, the Luos,
stubbornly cling to. Luos are extremely proud of their culture, which
includes practices like wife inheritance. If a man dies before his wife,
according to Luo tradition, the man�s brother must inherit her by having sex
with her. This creates a problem because if the man died of AIDS, his wife
probably has the virus as well, and she will likely pass it on to the
inheriting brother. In many tribes, if a person dies of AIDS it is not
mentioned as such. This is mostly because of the stigma of AIDS, but is
facilitated by the fact that people don�t actually die of AIDS per se, but
of an opportunistic infection like TB or malaria.

Anyway, if for some reason the wife dies right after the husband, before she
has a chance to be inherited, the custom is that the brother must have sex
with her dead body to indicate that she has been inherited, because an
uninherited deceased wife can bring shame or misfortune to the family.
However, the clever Luos have modified this particular tradition to
accommodate AIDS. Now, instead of the brother performing the inheritance
ritual on the corpse, which might have AIDS, the deceased husband�s family
raises money to hire someone else to have sex with the wife�s body. And
because they don�t want to risk a respectable Luo�s life, they will usually
hire a local drunk or street person, or a mKisii (someone from the
neighboring Kisii tribe, whose life obviously isn�t worth as much as a

So we have some work to do with Pastor Nelson�s community, but he�s a good
ally with a deep desire to make a positive impact in his community. And so
far he�s never said anything about condoms having holes in them.


Blogger Bill Scott, Sr. said...

I wish you the best of luck and commend you for the work you are doing.

11:39 PM  
Blogger Justina said...

Thanks, it's nice to hear expression of appreciation from halfway around the world. :)

12:43 PM  

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