A Catholic Answer to AIDS in Africa

Faithful House, a Catholic program in Uganda, helps couples learn the importance of monogamy — and stem the spread of AIDS.

BUSHENYI, Uganda — Married with three children, Edith and Deogratius Rukundo were once trapped in a self-created prison of fear and distrust.

“We had no communication. We weren’t faithful. We couldn’t sit down and talk about money. We had no time for each other,” Edith recalls.

Because of their lifestyle — one that’s all too common in Africa — the Catholic couple was in grave risk of catching the AIDS virus and leaving their children orphans.

But the Rukundos radically changed their hearts and their lives after taking a series of marriage-strengthening workshops in Uganda called Faithful House. A joint project of Catholic Relief Services and Maternal Life International, the workshops teach couples how to solve common marital problems that frequently lead to sexual infidelity and AIDS.

Developed by Africans for Africans, Faithful House has opened up a whole new dimension of intimacy in the Rukundos’ marriage. “Now we work together, we play together, we do everything together A to Z,” Edith says, smiling.

Asked the key lesson he has learned from the Faithful House training, Deogratius replies, “Primarily, couples have to be faithful to each other.”

As the world marks World AIDS Day Dec. 1, it’s an essential truth many African men need to hear and embrace. In sub-Saharan Africa, sexual infidelity is rampant in marriage, even among professed Christians.

“Anyone who lives in Africa understands the problems with marriages and the unhappiness of many African women,” says CRS physician Dorothy Brewster-Lee, who oversees the Faithful House program in Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia.

In one survey in Botswana, 43% of men and 17% of women reported having two or more regular sex partners in the previous year. In a national survey in South Africa, 40% of men and 25% of women currently had two or more lovers. This same sexual pattern is found throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

In one of the most revealing studies done since the HIV/AIDS pandemic began, Hans-Peter Kohler and Stephanie Helleringer of the University of Pennsylvania spent five months interviewing villagers on Malawi’s tiny Likoma Island. The scientists asked each of the villagers whom they’d slept with. When Kohler and Helleringer painstakingly graphed the results, an astonishing picture emerged: On this Peyton Place of islands, 65% of the residents in seven villages were interconnected in one huge sexual network.

Over time, ongoing multiple sex partnerships like those in Likoma become interlocked until they resemble a giant, invisible web of relationships through which the AIDS virus silently spreads.

A recent scientific review by the U.S. Agency for International Development revealed another remarkable fact: The odds of being HIV-infected in sub-Saharan Africa were three to four times greater among unfaithful men and women than among those who’d been faithful for life. The study can be found at PDF.USAid.gov/pdf_docs/PNADN708.pdf.

The Hopeful Solution

The much brighter news is that Africans themselves have found — and are already using — the countercultural solution: fidelity. “Faithful monogamy breaks up those sexual networks,” explained Matthew Hanley, author of Affirming Love, Avoiding AIDS: What Africa Can Teach the West, soon to be published by the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

In the late 1980s, Uganda launched its famous ABC (Abstain, Be faithful, or use a Condom) campaign — with “B” (“Love Faithfully”) as the pillar. Ugandans listened — and changed. In response to the campaign, the proportion of adults reporting they’d been faithfully monogamous in the previous year rose from 59% to 79% among men and from 77% to 91% among women.

As rates of faithful sex skyrocketed, Uganda’s HIV new-infection rates plunged by two-thirds.

Other African nations, including Kenya and Zimbabwe, also have launched fidelity promotions and campaigns and experienced similar victories.

The Faithful House workshops, however, enter into a realm beyond public-health campaigns. Through the training workshops, Africans actually learn how to be faithful.

Faithful House in Action

It is 10 a.m. on a sunlit Friday in Bushenyi, Uganda. The open-air conference room is packed with married couples clapping their hands, singing and hugging. Joining the celebration, their children dance and giggle with delight.

“How many of you are married?” ask the Rukundos, who are leading this morning’s Faithful House workshop.

Many hands go up.

“How many have your wedding rings on?” Edith asks.

Hands fall. Nervous titters can be heard in the room.

“Men remove their rings so they can play around,” Edith declares frankly. “If you hide your ring, it’s a signal you’re looking for something outside your marriage.”

A tall Catholic man in a blue shirt stands up and confesses he has been having affairs. When one of his mistresses phones him at home, he tells his wife the caller was a business acquaintance.

But from now on, the man contritely continues, he’s determined to turn over a new leaf. In the future, whenever women pursue him and phone him at home, he vows, “I’m going to tell them, ‘Don’t call me anymore. I’m married.’”

The crowd applauds.

Later, as the workshop participants nibble on brownies, the man’s more skeptical wife tells a reporter she’s not sure she believes him. Still, she hopes he means what he said.

If that man has experienced a true conversion of heart, he certainly won’t be alone. Of Ugandans who took the Faithful House training, 99% said they had changed their behavior in some way as a result.

Half the couples were starting to better control their anger and quarreling, 42% respected and appreciated each other more as partners, and 94% said they felt freer to discuss sexual issues. Most significant, 80% of trainees reported they now had the knowledge and skills to be sexually faithful.

Firmly rooted in African culture, the Faithful House curriculum likens building a strong marriage to building a house. The analogy resonates deeply with Africans. “Many don’t know how to read, write or hold a pen. But they all know how to build a house,” said Dr. George Mulcaire-Jones of Maternal Life International.

Theology of the Body

Lessons about true love versus false love drawn from Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body also resonate deeply among Africans, many of whom struggle to live on less that $1 a day. Couples who take the workshops learn that when they simply use their own or others’ bodies as “playthings,” as objects of sexual pleasure, they devalue their sexuality in ways that soon lead to sexual boredom. In contrast, Christ renews human sexuality to its fullness by revealing the wondrous truth that when married couples make love, the very “gates of heaven” open.

“Women love this program,” Brewster-Lee said. “It’s transformational. When you see these couples, you know it’s transformational. They’ve changed.”

Cecilia Ng’ang’a, who took the Faithful House workshops with her husband in Kenya, said, “On a personal level, I became free. It is like chains that were holding me back fell off. As a couple, we communicate more effectively. My husband and children tell me that I am a better listener, that I am more accommodating of other’s views. The Faithful House also revitalized our family prayer life and enhanced our spirit of communion.”

Mulcaire-Jones said, “Through the lens of the Faithful House, we are seeing the key to social, economic and human development [in Africa]” — and that key is “couple integrity.”

“Once a couple comes together and repairs/rebuilds/renews their marriage and begins working together — it’s working together that’s key — not only do they avoid HIV infection, but they are also better providers, better parents and much more likely to emerge from poverty,” Mulcaire-Jones said.

With little publicity, the Faithful House program has spread from Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia to Catholic dioceses in Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Sudan and Zimbabwe. Even an Ethiopian police department has used it.

“Many groups have done abstinence programs. We’re one of the few who have a ‘Be Faithful’ curriculum,” Brewster-Lee said.

In its recent review of the evidence, the Agency for International Development called for the United States to focus more AIDS-prevention dollars in Africa on fidelity and partner reduction, especially for men. But U.S. funding for Faithful House is due to run out in 2010 unless congressional leaders take concrete steps to restore it.

Loss of funds certainly won’t help, but Brewster-Lee thinks the Faithful House program will survive. “The churches love it. I haven’t met a bishop yet who doesn’t absolutely love it,” she said. “I think there are enough bishops, laypeople and catechists who really believe in this; they’re going to figure out a way to keep it moving ahead.”

Sue Ellin Browder writes

from Ukiah, California.