AIDS in Africa - a Witness Story and a Challenge

Dec 09, 2002 08:27 PM EST

As people around the globe commemorated World AIDS Day on Sunday 1 December, an Anglican priest in the east African nation of Uganda reflected on his own personal journey with HIV/AIDS.

The Revd Gideon Byamugisha, 43, was the first active priest on the African continent to disclose his HIV-positive status. He is one of an estimated 29 million Africans living with the disease and one of 42 million people worldwide suffering the syndrome's devastating consequences.

Canon Byamugisha discovered he was HIV-positive in 1992 and he made the information public almost immediately.

"I think I didn't spend a day with that information on my own," he said during a telephone interview. "I had to tell my family members immediately."

In a tragic series of events, the priest learned the news of his HIV status within weeks of the sudden death of his 25-year-old wife.

"When I look back, it could have been HIV/AIDS related, although at that time, they told me it was pneumonia," said Canon Byamugisha. "We had tested her HIV [status], but she died before she could get the results, so when we went back ... after she died, they told us she was HIV positive."

Canon Byamugisha does not know how he became infected but he suspects that a blood transfusion - donated by someone who later died of HIV/AIDS - could have been the cause. The love, encouragement and caring he received from family, friends, his bishop and co-workers were immediate and have been sustained. This year he marks 10 years of living with the disease. He said that were it not for the support of others, he would not be alive today. Millions of others have not been so lucky.

He tells of a woman who, upon learning her daughter was HIV-positive, immediately withheld all food and drink, in the belief that she was preventing future suffering. The daughter was dead in four days.

For the past decade, Canon Byamugisha has worked to inform fellow Africans about HIV/AIDS and in the process has thought much about his namesake. His parents called him Gideon after the biblical figure.

"(My parents) got it from the Bible, about a man who wanted to serve God, but was fearful ... but later on God said, 'I want you to serve me, and I will be with you and I will strengthen you.' It's one of the names I treasure most," he said.

An author of several books about AIDS, Canon Byamugisha now works with World Vision, speaking candidly and honestly to the church, which has often been reluctant to help those affected by the disease.

"There are two kinds of clergy in Africa," he says. "There are church leaders that use AIDS to control their congregations and there are those that use their congregations to control AIDS."

In November, Canon Byamugisha participated in a three-day retreat with other clergy from 10 African countries. Together, they made a call for an end to the stigma and discrimination often associated with the disease. Several other church leaders revealed their HIV-positive status for the first time. Witnessing that kind of support was an affirmation of his work, said Canon Byamugisha.

"I felt like Simeon in the Bible, who after seeing the baby (Jesus) said, 'now I can go and rest in peace.'

By Patricia L Paddey