SOUTHERN AFRICA: 'Listen to children's voices,' Archbishop tells AIDS conference

June 8, 2007

Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa told the 3rd South African AIDS Conference in Durban on June 8 to "spend more time looking through the eyes of children."

In his Nkosi Johnson Lecture to the conference, Ndungane urged participants to remember the vision 11-year old Nkosi shared with the world 7 years ago. "Much more remains to be done in preventing the spread of this pandemic, in overcoming the lingering ignorance and superstition which surround it, and in supporting everyone living with or affected in any way by HIV and AIDS," he said. To give children effective help meant that first adults must listen to children "and learn what help and support they most need, and what would make the greatest differences to the difficulties they face."

The Archbishop told how Cape Town churches had realized that, even though their children had a high knowledge about HIV and AIDS and about the church's teaching that God created sex to be enjoyed within marriage, this had little effect on their behavior. Listening to the young people made them realize they must get away from the image of 'thou shalt not' and instead offer a positive and joyful vision of life, he explained. Listening had also led to effective "peer education" programs where the young people themselves took the lead in promoting healthy lifestyles.

Ndungane called on all South Africans to work together for a generation without AIDS. "Everyone who is born HIV negative should remain HIV negative," he said. This would require everyone to work together in partnerships across government, business, civil society and faith communities, and a shift "from scoring points to sharing purpose." He hoped that the National Strategic Plan and the current conference would prove to be a turning point.

Advocating universal access to both medication and adequate nutrition, he underlined the benefits to children of parents who were able to live long and healthy lives, despite the virus.

The Archbishop called on churches, especially in rural areas, to offer their premises for "One Stop Health Care Centres" from which professionals and volunteers could run a range of services from voluntary counseling and testing, to drug administration and compliance monitoring, to prevention education and advice on access to grants.

He also challenged the faith communities to "move from being part of the problem to taking a lead" in overcoming stigma, and told them they needed a "change of mindset" so that Scripture and other holy texts were no longer used to oppress women and girls. "In 21st century South Africa, too many men are still giving religious reasons to justify unjustifiable patriarchal attitudes within contemporary cultures -- whether rooted in Africa or beyond -- and defend indefensible actions, which are certainly not what our faiths have at their heart," he said. "This must change."

Ndungane paid tribute to the "anonymous multitude" of carers in the country, and called for them to receive adequate support and resourcing. He also called for simpler funerals, saying "we can bury our loved ones with dignity, without being drawn into terrible debt. Love and respect for our dead are not measured in rands, but in the attitudes of our hearts."

Speaking about his recent HIV test, Ndungane said he hoped that people might come to "view being tested in the same light as a regular check-up at the dentist."

In his conclusion, he noted that contemporary society often encourages people to forget that to be human is to be mortal -- "a fact the pandemic forces all of us to face." He urged people to "learn to be better at helping one another live well, and die well -- without fear, with all the love and the care that we need."