Rev Maxwell Kapachawo is the only known pastor in Zimbabwe who publicly admits to being HIV-positive; he is also encouraging any of his peers infected and affected by the disease to speak openly about HIV/AIDS from the pulpit.
Churches in Zimbabwe tend to approach HIV/AIDS as a moral issue, Kapachawo told IRIN, and treat those infected as immoral, but the disease afflicting one in five Zimbabweans between the ages of 15 and 49 should actually be addressed as a medical matter.
The irony was that while many of the country’s faith-based organisations were involved in programmes for HIV/AIDS orphans, the pandemic itself was a taboo subject in church corridors.
“Our mission as religious leaders living with or affected by the pandemic is to break the silence and live positively, end self-stigma, denial and shame, while at the same time being forces of change in our congregations and communities,” he said.
Kapachawo is the national coordinator of the Zimbabwe Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV/AIDS (ZINERELA), which supports religious leaders living with HIV/AIDS or who have lost loved ones to it.
In a bid to combat stigmatisation among religious leaders, he uses radio and television to spread his message. “Let us make churches channels of hope, acceptance and love. I am proud to be doing my part,” he says in one commercial.
“Religious institutions are very powerful because in Zimbabwe, for example, the majority of the population belongs to faith-based organisations, and these could be used as vehicles for spreading the message in the fight against HIV/AIDS,” Kapachawo told IRIN. “Unfortunately, in Zimbabwe, the moment anybody talks about HIV/AIDS, questions of infidelity, promiscuity and sexuality are raised.”
Rejected by the church
Kapachawo tested positive for HIV/AIDS in 2004, and experienced at first hand the attitude of the church towards the disease, and the presumption in religious circles that the disease is a consequence of immorality.
Before he tested positive for the virus, the bishop of the church suspected that Kapachawo was suffering from the effects of HIV/AIDS, removed him from his congregation and sent him home to live with his parents.
”For me, that was like a death sentence, because as my spiritual father I expected my bishop to be supportive of me during my time of need. He never visited me after that”
“For me, that was like a death sentence, because as my spiritual father I expected my bishop to be supportive of me during my time of need. He never visited me after that,” he told IRIN.
For three years Kapachawo battled opportunistic illnesses, such as fungal infections, before deciding to attend a workshop on HIV/AIDS. “I was surprised to see people who looked strong and healthy, who said they were living positively with the virus. I vowed to go for testing and decided to go public in order to help fight stigmatisation in religious institutions.”
He said the effects of stigmatisation by the church were illustrated by the fact that of ZINERELA’s 181 members, he was the only religious leader who had publicly declared his HIV status.
“As a support group, we do not demand that members disclose their HIV status, though from discussions generated during meetings we can tell which of our members are positive. The problems that we face among members on the issue of living openly and positively are questions on how religious leaders will react if we come out in the open about our HIV status.”
Stigmatisation among HIV-positive religious leaders in Zimbabwe was rife, he commented, although this was not always the case in other parts of the continent.
“ZINERELA is part of a regional network in Southern Africa and the whole African continent. We admire how our colleagues from Uganda and Kenya who are living with HIV/AIDS are loved by their church leaders and congregations. Some churches have programmes in place which support them with accessing ARVs [antiretroviral drugs],” he said.
The formation of a network of religious leaders living with or affected by the HIV/AIDS was the brainchild of Gideon Byamugisha, an Anglican priest in Uganda, believed to be the first religious leader in Africa to publicly declare his HIV-positive status. Byamugisha has been living with HIV/AIDS for 15 years.
Although Kapachawo said his organisation had received some funding from religious groupings, it was not sufficient to sustain outreach programmes for men and women of the cloth in remote parts of the country.
”The work of pastors is a calling which requires them to work 24 hours a day, while it is not financially rewarding and, as a result, our members cannot afford the high cost of ARVs”
“So far, we have only managed to set up structures in four out of 10 provinces such as Masvingo, Mashonaland West, Mashonaland East and Manicaland. We do not have vehicles to visit colleagues and I have had to resort to public transport, which is unreliable,” he said.
“The work of pastors is a calling which requires them to work 24 hours a day, while it is not financially rewarding and, as a result, our members cannot afford the high cost of ARVs.”
Kapachawo said the ideal would be to supply ARVs to all ZINERELA members requiring the medication, but limited funding made this very difficult. “Currently, HIV-positive members are being linked to other organisations in the HIV/AIDS sector for assistance, in terms of accessing medical drugs.”