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West African Church Confronts AIDS Crisis

Life in the village of Koutoura in the West African nation of Burkina Faso is strikingly similar to what it must have been like 100 or even 500 years ago. By and large, villagers grow their own food, make their own clothing and live without amenities such as running water, electricity or telephones.

The only way to and from the village is a narrow, rutted dirt path, scarcely wide enough for a vehicle.

The paths are the perfect size for a moped, however. The two-wheeled conveyance is one of the few visible signs of modern life.

But a new, less visible aspect of modernity is menacing the village and many others like it across Burkina Faso: AIDS.

In Koutoura, village leaders are addressing the problem head-on. But not everybody wants to talk about it.
“We could say yes, that there is AIDS in this village,” said Moussa Traore, 33, who has been appointed by the village elders to work with outside organizations. “The problem is that people don’t want to admit they have AIDS.

“Everybody around sees that they have the symptoms of AIDS and they know they have AIDS, but the person himself, or the family, will say that he died of another illness. They won’t admit he had AIDS.”

Traore is also a leader in Kotoura’s only Christian church, which is part of the Evangelical Mennonite Church of Burkina Faso. The conference president, Abdias Coulibaly, says the church has started a series of measures to slow the spread of HIV, the AIDS virus, including educational programs for youth stressing the importance of abstinence.

Coulibaly tells his churches that different organizations must not fight each other over their methods.

“One thing that church members have been encouraged to do is to teach that the best way to keep yourself from AIDS is abstinence before marriage and faithfulness during marriage,” he said. “So we’re going to teach what the Bible says concerning behavior that will also fight AIDS. And we’ll also speak about what the world does, and we’ll show the difference.”

The Evangelical Mennonite Church in Burkina Faso is about 300 members strong and dates from 1983.
Speaking out about AIDS, no matter what the method, is a bold thing to do in Burkina Faso. Many people would rather not hear about it.

“Issues of sex are a taboo matter to talk about here,” Coulibaly said. “If somebody says he has AIDS, the immediate conclusion is that this person is sleeping around, is committing adultery. So people would rather hide their illness.

“In addition, the tests to see whether you’re positive or negative are not easy to get.”

Coulibaly said a goal of the Mennonite Church in Burkina Faso is to make sure its members get tested. Another part of the church’s task is to help those who are already sick.

“Normally when you get AIDS in the village, people are afraid,” he said. “And the people get tired taking care of the sick person, because taking care of someone with AIDS is long and difficult. So if somebody helps you get well and then you get sick again, helps you again and you get sick again, then they get tired of it, and so they just stop helping.”

This article was reprinted with permission from Mennonite Weekly Review.