Responding to HIV with faith and courage

Rev. Dr Nyambura Njoroge (pic courtesy WCC)

Rev. Dr Nyambura Njoroge is always reminding herself of the daily lives of people living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. Their battle for dignity and enormous resilience keeps inspiring her while she coordinates World Council of Churches Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative for Africa (EHAIA).

Njoroge is a Presbyterian minister, a leading theologian and ecumenist from Kenya. She has been associated with EHAIA since 2002. This is a project which has accompanied churches in Africa in dealing with HIV through information, training, sharing of resources and networking.

Amidst the looming challenges of reduced income for HIV work, Njoroge finds her strength from faith, saying that “God is faithful and God’s granary never depleted”. Yet she admits the significance of the challenge, which requires profound reflections.

For her, the inspiration comes through the “life giving stories” of the people living with HIV, who she says, “manifest courage in the face of enormous challenges, difficulties, stubborn stigma and judgemental attitudes.”

For Njoroge powerful theological narratives play a crucial role, providing ethical basis for churches to deal with HIV pandemic.

“It is the narratives in scriptures that ring in my ears with new meaning. During Advent and Christmas season life giving stories of Mary, the mother of Jesus and Elizabeth, her elderly cousin and mother of John, are part of the mosaic of narratives. In particular, the Magnificat brings a smile and joy in my dark days,” she says.

In her work at EHAIA, Njoroge has encountered many Marys, Elizabeths, Zechariahs and Josephs, who she says have received “troubling and confusing messages albeit of very different nature when HIV tests comes back positive”.

Fighting the stigma, living with hope

For many HIV positive people, discovering the news of their disease comes with shame, betrayal, silence, isolation, anger and suicidal thoughts. Njoroge points out self-stigma, misinformation and judgemental attitudes to be the major obstacles HIV positive people have to overcome to live normally.

One of the significant approaches for Njoroge in dealing with the HIV pandemic is grounded in the relationship between gender and theology. She is a founding member of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians and a member of the International Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV and AIDS.

Sharing from her experience, Njoroge shares various testimonies of children and women living with HIV, who constantly battle against all kinds of violence, especially against sexual and gender based violence.

“It is the lack of adequate, nutritious diet and access to the healthcare centres, which keeps on complicating the lives of women and children. If they do not give up, why should we?” asks Njoroge.

Transforming attitudes

Due to the struggles of activists, many HIV positive people have gathered the courage to disclose their HIV positive status. It is because of the strength of these people, shares Njoroge, that their journeys have become part of the social movement against the pandemic.

According to Njoroge, these “life giving stories” also come from HIV negative people, among whom are some “church leaders who once judged HIV positive people to be sinners and deserving of God’s punishment, yet now they have rejected the stigma.”

Njoroge shares about her correspondence with a priest from North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo, which she says reveals people’s vulnerabilities, scarcity of resources, endless struggles, resilience and the power to say no to injustice.

The priest wrote to her, “We are carrying on with holistic ministry. You can see some violated women and children that I took to hospital in my car. There are many people like these with no access to hospitals. I am praying to get some money to help them. I don’t have the money yet. But thank God for those who were traumatized, are now well and went back home.”

Njoroge feels that such examples of courage enable theologically motivated activists to brew life affirming pastoral theologies, liturgies and pedagogical tools that facilitate transformation and renewal of faith in God.

“Journeys of people living with HIV and survivors of sexual violence have helped Christians to recognize the critical role of concrete policies in dealing with the HIV endemic,” says Njoroge.

According to Njoroge creating HIV and gender sensitive policies and code of conduct regarding sexual abuse and exploitation is still in its infancy in many churches. However, the fight against HIV is no longer perceived as a preoccupation of the secular domain and human right activists.

Learning lessons and moving forward

One of the highlights in Njoroge’s ministry was to participate in the creation of We Will Speak Out: Working together to end sexual violence in 2011. This is an initiative by a group of international Christian organizations led by Tearfund (a UK based Christian development agency) to use the potential of the churches and theological institutions to address sexual violence.

For Njoroge one of the major lessons she has learnt is the importance of working collaboratively. She considers these initiatives ways of “facilitating God’s justice and peace in the face of tyranny and endemic violence”.

Njoroge shares about the impact of such initiatives, and how they can have a positive impact with consistent advocacy efforts.

“In the process of creating this coalition, life giving stories have been shared in Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda and Liberia. As a result of which some church leaders made strong commitments to address violence in homes, work places and schools, even in hospitals,” says Njoroge.

For Njoroge financial means are important to continue working against the HIV pandemic, yet at the same time, she says, “we must desire to grow in faith, humility and wisdom, and learn to be inspired by the people living on margins of the society.”

(This story was provided and used with permission by the World Council of Churches.)