THE BLOG

World AIDS Day: A Conversation From Uganda With Gideon Byamugisha

12/01/2010 02:16 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The following interview is part of a series of conversations with activists working for development and peace, who draw their inspiration and often direction from their faith. This series, which also included an interview with Ruth Messinger of AJWS, is based on interviews led by Katherine Marshall, as part of policy explorations for the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University and the World Faiths Development Dialogue.

Gideon Byamugisha, an Anglican priest, learned that he was HIV positive in 1991, when that diagnosis was a death sentence. He agonized alone for a time, but once he decided to speak publicly about his illness, he never stopped. The first African priest to break the silence, he works tirelessly to fight HIV/AIDS and especially to help the children who are so deeply affected.

Will the new opening by Pope Benedict XVI on condoms make a difference for HIV/AIDS strategies in Africa?

It will. Many people, leaders, and communities of faith, in Africa and beyond, who had long heeded the divine call to protect each other and their unborn children from HIV infection, using all possible means of self-defense available, had felt uneasy and reluctant to disobey the tough stance on condoms of their highest church authorities. His Holiness' positive change of heart is their biggest World AIDS Day and Christmas gift. I can see AIDS beginning to panic. I can see its infection and transmission fangs and terror sabotaged and neutralized. I can almost see it celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2031 not in the ballroom of a five-star hotel but in the acute and intensive care unit wing of a hospital.

What have you learned from living for a decade with HIV/AIDS?

We (all of us) have the means to stop HIV/AIDS and thus we have a deep moral commitment to do so. It is a preventable disease. The answers are not simple, and judgments are not helpful. Working together creatively and with compassion and conviction are what it's about. Even more, we must not just view HIV/AIDS as a problem that has to be dealt with, fixed, and then be gone. It is an opportunity to decide what direction we want our world to take.

Tell me about the organization you founded and inspired: INERELA+ (International Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV & AIDS)

Religious leaders who live with HIV and AIDS are often the most persuasive advocates, able to navigate moral quicksands with skill and reach out with compassion to those in need. INERELA+ combines support to our members with outreach that includes "speaking truth to power". Its focus is Africa but it also works in the Americas and the Caribbean, Europe & Asia.

You point to stigma as deadly, where religious leadership can make a huge difference. How did you experience it yourself?

When I opened up, in 1992, HIV was seen as a disease of sinners. People preached that HIV/AIDS is a disease, with no cure, and no vaccine, that attacks prostitutes and people with loose morals. If you say you are HIV positive, people still ask, "Have you repented?" On television and from the pulpit you hear that AIDS is a disease of truck drivers and prostitutes, but I'm neither a prostitute nor a truck driver.

People's responses to me were divided. Some were very supportive, but others said I was bringing shame to the church. They said, "Why don't you take the punishment quietly, and serve the sentence without bringing the church into it?" When I said that I was positive, my mother church (the Anglican Church) was implicated and some said I was spoiling the name of the Church. My bishop and my family gave me full support but others were far less so and a third group didn't know what to make of me. Even today, in any public situation, I have come to expect people who are proactive, people who barely conceal their disgust, and people who remain on the fence.

What led you to decide to speak publicly?

As a religious leader, I could not keep quiet and still maintain my credibility. When people asked, "How are you?" could I say, "I'm fine," when I'm not fine? I felt that I needed to be honest, first, to myself second, to God and third, to the people I lead, the people I minister to. I spoke to an ever-widening circle, starting with my immediate employers, then my staff members, then my students, then my family, then my wider church, until 1995, when I was fully public. I was healthy until 1998 when I came close to death. Uganda then had few ARVs and they cost about $1,500 a month. A wonderful American woman sent me medicines, a true Good Samaritan. And today I am healthy. I married again and have two children, the older named Hope!

What is your focus in your ministry?

I'm not a doctor or a scientist, so in working to defeat HIV and AIDS, I focus on stigma, shame, denial, discrimination, inaction and mis-action. Stigma doesn't stop with people with HIV. It goes on, attaching itself in a spiral to our families, communities, nations, and continents. At one conference a person said: "These Africans, they don't behave themselves, they are screwing themselves to death."

I have helped the religious community worldwide to understand that there are two words we are confusing when we fight AIDS: the words "right" and "safe." Most Christian ethics is not about what is 'safe' and 'unsafe.' It is about what is 'right' and 'wrong'. This mentality and moral reasoning is wanting when it comes to HIV/AIDS because it brings moral attributes of what is 'wrong' and what is 'right' in sex and sexuality and plants them on AIDS. People conclude that when you do the morally 'right' things in sex (saying no to fornication, adultery and prostitution) then you are safe from HIV, without considering other variables like unsafe environments. Not all 'sexual saints' are free from HIV and not all 'sexual sinners' are HIV positive! There should be an ethic that tells people to do what is 'right' and 'safe' in both sexual and non-sexual matters at the individual, family, local community, national, regional and global levels.

False assumptions make our AIDS fight very difficult. Because you hear people say, "Abstain. If you can't abstain, be faithful. If you can't be faithful, use condoms." What do you hear in that statement? The whole conversation is focused on sex. Where is the discussion of non-sexual routes of transmission like infected mother-to-child, unsafe injections, unsafe circumcision or other unsafe skin cutting, skin piercing and skin-penetrating behaviors and practices? Where are people getting HIV prevention messages to help protect themselves from HIV that is not sexually transmitted? What they hear on radio is 'ABC.' (Abstain, Be Faithful, Condomize) They go to church, ABC. They go to political rallies, ABC. Any wonder then that HIV-related infections, illnesses and deaths are highly stigmatized?

I wish people were talking about 'unsafe sex' (whether lawful or not) and not just 'unlawful sex'. If we concentrate only on 'unlawful sex', we stigmatize people, and they don't test, and many of those who will test will not disclose, and those who dare to disclose do it too late for effective HIV and AIDS prevention, care, treatment and management. So the prevention message is lost.

You advocate for a SAVE approach: Safer practices, Access to treatment and nutrition, Voluntary, routine and stigma-free counseling and testing, and the Empowerment of children, youths, women, men, families, communities and nations living with or vulnerable to HIV and AIDS. How did this message come about?

SAVE is a reaction to limitations in the ABC message. ABC talks only about one mode of transmission, outside of marriage. It ignores the role of treatment in prevention; with effective treatment programs, you indirectly have an effective prevention program. The SAVE message and approach do not throw ABC away but expands on it. We talk about all the safe practices that are possible: abstinence, mutual faithfulness to an uninfected sexual partner, condom use, prevention of mother to child transmission, safe blood transfusion, safe injections, safe circumcision, and so on.

I regard ABC as electric light switches. If you switch on an electric light switch, light will only come if there is proper wiring in the house, if electric wire transmission lines bring electric power to the house, and turbines run and produce electricity. That is the empowerment route. If there is no wiring system, or if it is faulty, and if there are no turbine engines to facilitate electric light emission, no electric light will brighten your room however much you yell at your family members to switch on the lights!

The good thing again is that a growing number of religious people see HIV/AIDS in this broad and comprehensive way. Many religious leaders now see that salvation and 'damnation' can be at the individual, family, national , regional, continental and global levels. But still religion can be a two-edged sword. It can inspire health and development, but it can also inhibit them if it does not have zero- tolerance for life-reducing, life-threatening, life -taking and life-wasting policies, happenings, practices, beliefs, habits and systems.

Someone dies of malaria and we chant, "The Lord gave, the Lord has taken." The same chant with cholera, typhoid or measles. Someone is shot by thugs due to political instability, malfunctioning judicial and legal enforcement systems, poor economic systems, poor education, deadly prisons, and inadequate job markeds. The same chant. Mothers die in childbirth because health policies, structures and systems fail them; the same song. People crash in avoidable and controllable 'accidents' due to bad roads, flawed road driving licensing and inspection systems. But we should be asking ourselves: Where is the role of the devil in this? Where is the role of negligence? Where is the role of inaction? Where is the role of lack of policies, will and commitment to life, health and peace? Where is the role of poor governance, socio-economic and political justice?

Why don't we say: "The Lord gives; stigma, shame, discrimination, marginalization and poor-self governance takes away?" Morality should be frank. Most of these diseases, deaths and conflicts happen because we have not done enough!

We must tell individuals, families, communities, nations, continents and the global community that there is preventable death, there is postponable death, there is reversible death, and there is inevitable death. To hold God responsible for deaths we could have prevented, postponed or reversed is, in my view, morally irresponsible.

Does the financial crisis keep you and your colleagues awake at night?

Indeed, it has hit home, because people have less disposable income. The crisis affects everything we do We have had to limit the number of orphans we can support. I can see it in my wife's face, in her anxiety. I work and pray with others to mitigate its impact, create jobs, promote long term growth, comfort the agitated, and agitate the comfortable.