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Discussing AIDS remains taboo in Botswana
November 28, 2008
Gaberone, Botswana — Parents aren’t supposed to bury their children – but that is exactly what Batswana parents are doing with about one third of their sons and daughters.
In addition to the mourning and grief, the pain and illness of HIV-AIDS, there are children left to be raised by grandparents, incomes that end, and jobs at risk from the HIV-AIDS stigma for those still healthy enough to work.
The topic of HIV-AIDS is wearing thin in the popular Western media, but it remains difficult to talk about in Botswana. In April, 2008, Glyn Jones, an international ministry worker with Mennonite Church Canada Witness and its partner Mennonite Mission Network through Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission, was the first non-Batswana ever invited to speak at a youth retreat in the large Spiritual Healing Church. Part of the broader African Independent Churches (AICs), the Spiritual Healing Church is estimated to have 15,000 members spread over several branches in various parts of the Botswana alone.
But not talking about it will not make the disease go away. Jones exhorted the youth with several New Testament stories to illustrate that following Jesus means making strong willed choices. “[Then] I used a Setswana proverb that says ‘Men are like bulls, they take what they want.’ This is often used to explain male sexual practices. I used it to say that as Christians, we have choices to make, in fact are called to make choices to live faithfully according to what Jesus taught, including our sexual choices.”
Fearing his comment had perhaps overstepped acceptable social boundaries, Jones later consulted with an elder. The elder responded that this proverb is not usually spoken to youth that age but rather to people considered to have entered adulthood. “I replied that today it seems we need to talk about things like sexuality earlier than we used to.”
Bishop Moklatse Kokoro, 59, acknowledges the HIV-AIDS challenge. A now retired civil servant, he is the Principle Administrator of the Spiritual Healing Churches in the Botswana. He was also one of the first students of Mennonite Ministry-led Bible teaching and theology training in the 1970s. “Because of the teaching of the Mennonites in some of the Spiritual churches, there have been a lot of changes to their weddings and funerals,” said Kokoro. “Now we have a branch at Francistown, and they are playing a leading role in AIDS-HIV ministry. This is growing throughout the country.”
Pastor Thulaganyo Oathotsea frequently conducts funerals. “The biggest challenge in the Spiritual Healing Churches is that we are losing a good number of young people due to HIV- AIDS. Glyn and [wife] Susan have helped with a number of issues such as a mini-conference for Christians to discuss the HIV-AIDs issue, and to see how Christians would help in these situations and in other problems we are having in the country as a whole. They have brought people together from different churches to learn how others are tackling problems. Glyn and Susan have [also] presented a paper that will help churches in the long run and have helped mobilize support for young people and others who are greatly affected by HIV-AIDS,” he said.
Both Kokoro and Oathotsea, who works in the country’s banking system, say that Mennonite ministry and Bible teaching reaches beyond the HIV-AIDS issue. “Most church leaders have not been to school. Most know the scripture to some extent and they know how to pray… At times they have felt left out. But when they meet and share with other people, answers have been forthcoming. Glyn and Susan have really understood and listened,” said Oathotsea.
He gives an example of how Mennonite ministry has changed practice over the long term: “There are certain old beliefs, some of the things that were practiced in the Old Testament, most of them are still practiced by Christians here,” Oathotsea said, adding an old belief is that prayers of the people must be relayed through a pastor.
Kokoro reflects that the way Glyn and Susan teach is also important. “They [present a] lecture and then the students discuss it themselves. They don’t impose any teaching on them,” he said.
Jones worried about his response to the elder’s concern at the youth retreat. He worried that the elder may have been offended by raising the subject of sexual promiscuity with the young audience. “A couple of weeks later I got a call from the elder asking for some advice, so I breathed a sigh of relief that I had not overstepped the boundaries,” said Jones.