MOZAMBIQUE: Islamic leaders try to come to terms with AIDS

Monday, September 10, 2007

Sheik Muhamade Aboulai Cheba's call to prayer wafts over the thatch-and-coral houses behind their four-metre high bamboo fences. The Indian Ocean shimmers between the tall slender trunks of palm trees at the turns and ends of the narrow, sandy alleys they shade. This is Paquitequete, the oldest neighbourhood in Pemba, capital of Cabo Delgado, Mozambique's northernmost province.

The bustling neighbourhood quiets down on Fridays after 11, when the green-and-white mosque set between the hill and the beach, fills up. Often the sermon is about AIDS. "We teach people how to protect themselves and how to deal with the disease if they have it," Cheba told IRIN/PlusNews.

Seroprevalence in Cabo Delgado, which borders Tanzania, is 8.6 percent, the lowest in the country; the national average is 16.2 percent.

Arab traders brought the Muslim faith to Africa's eastern coast around the eighth century. Around 80 percent of Cabo Delgado's 2.5 million people are Muslim, as are about a quarter of Mozambique's nearly 20 million people.

Word power

Cheba knows the power of his words: "In a place of worship people pay more attention," and also in a place of learning. He is the provincial director of 139 registered madrassas (Islamic schools), where pupils start learning about AIDS as early as six years of age, "in an appropriate way, using metaphors, not showing a condom."

Following Islamic teachings, Cheba insists on faithfulness among couples and postponing sex until marriage. Condoms are not recommended.

Many mosques have organised teams who visit the sick and orphans at home, and the Portuguese medical charity, Medicos do Mundo, has trained about a dozen women, including Cheba's wife, to administer home-based care. Orphans are exempt from paying the madrassa school fee of 5 contos (US$0.20) a month, and are given food and clothing.

HIV-positive Muslims are encouraged to join support groups, says Nassurulahe Dula, President of the Islamic Congress of Cabo Delgado, the province's largest Muslim congregation.

All this is helpful, but some AIDS activists in Pemba have often bristled at Cheba's statements: "This disease is a divine punishment; the Prophet said that a disease without cure and sudden death is the punishment for adultery."

He hastens to explain that "like the tsunami in Indonesia, AIDS is a punishment that affects those who do good, and those who do evil. People must repent and return to God."

A good Muslim

Maria de Fatima Bacar, 44, a large, friendly woman who lives in a hamlet 20km inland from Pemba, has one son alive, three dead, and two grandchildren whom she dotes on.

In June 2003, her husband, a policeman, became sick after his first wife had died some time before. Bacar and her husband both tested positive for HIV and soon started antiretroviral treatment, among the first in the province to do so. She had worked as an assistant at the local health post for many years, and her experience helped them cope with the virus.

The couple organised a support group, the Association to Help your Neighbour, which now has 22 members and cares for 12 HIV-positive children. They visit the sick, help with burials, make sure that orphans go to school and encourage people to test for HIV at the local health post. "Fifty-seven last month," she says proudly.

Bacar is unhappy about what she hears at mosques. "AIDS is not a divine punishment; whoever says AIDS is a punishment, says it out of ignorance," she says firmly.

"I am a good Muslim woman. I never did anything outside my faith. I was an honest and faithful wife, and I got HIV through my husband. Instead of embracing people, they reject us."

The link between AIDS and sex has long been a thorny issue for faith organisations that promote strict sexual guidelines and behaviour. "We are encouraging AIDS with the way we dress, showing bellies and tempting men," says Awash Ingles, a prominent Muslim woman leader who worships at the Paquitequete mosque.

Like malaria

Islam has "immense problems" in dealing with AIDS in Cabo Delgado, says Diquessone Rodrigues, provincial coordinator of MONASO, the national umbrella for AIDS service organisations.

"We must try to change this belief that AIDS is a divine punishment because girls wear tchuna-babes [tight jeans] and have sex before marriage."

MONASO is meeting with groups of mosque-associated women to try to change their perceptions and enlist them to bring about change. "They can speak [about AIDS] at mosques and madrassas," says Rodrigues.

Another potential ally is the Provincial Council against AIDS, which plans to meet with Islamic authorities. "We want to work with Islamic leaders to change this discourse, because it hurts HIV-positive people to hear AIDS is a punishment from God," says Council director Teles Manuel Jemuce.

The idea is to gently nudge Muslim thinking in Cabo Delgado towards common ground with Bacar, who says: "AIDS does not target Muslims, Christians or pagans; AIDS is like malaria, we are all equal in front of it."

Source: PlusNews