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Abstinence Brings 'Dignity'

Traveling in Africa, First Lady Laura Bush speaks in favor of faith-based HIV prevention.

Thursday, June 28, started out as a pampered day in Mrs. Laura Bush's four-nation Africa marathon.

Lusaka, Zambia, was the third stop in her week-long trip through Senegal, Mozambique, and Mali. After a private breakfast in one of the top hotels, she was sped to the country's luxurious presidential residency for photos, coffee, and a brief closed-door meeting with President Levy Mwanawasa.

After that, accompanied by her Zambian counterpart, First Lady Maureen Mwanawasa, Mrs. Bush hit the road. "I hope you have comfortable shoes," she had warned at the beginning of her trip. "We will work hard." In Lusaka, she certainly did.

Her first stop was Regiment Basic School—a grade 1–9 Catholic-founded school populated by children with HIV and children who have lost parents due to the virus. Mrs. Bush observed a few minutes of a math lesson offered through a U.S.-funded, locally produced radio program.

Next she was entertained by the school drama group, which put on a 10-minute, anti-AIDS play. Then she held an informal roundtable discussion with 13 female students, some HIV positive, all supported by either the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) or the Africa Education Initiative (AEI). Both PEPFAR and AEI provide hundreds of millions annually in U.S. taxpayer funds to help children in Africa with education and health care.

The final event at the school was a visit to the new Play Pump—a merry-go-round attached to a water pump. The invention is designed to provide clean drinking water from a deep well, and it's kid-powered. Mrs. Bush noted, "It runs on the energy of children at play and is a fun [piece of] equipment in the schoolyard."

Abstinence education brings 'dignity'

A cloud of red dust announced the arrival of the heavily guarded entourage that took Mrs. Bush and her daughter Jenna to the Mututa Memorial Center. Center director Martha Chilufuya's late husband, having received a lot of home-based care during his long illness, donated half of their farm to care-giving initiatives.

Today, thanks to PEPFAR, local, and international support, the center has 36 caregivers serving 200 people. Faith-based organizations such as World Vision, Catholic Relief Services, Expanded Church Response, and the Salvation Army are involved in a consortium known as RAPIDS (Reaching HIV/AIDS Affected People with Integrated Development and Support). These organizations help operate a community garden producing food and income for caregivers and their clients.

Speaking to the Bush delegation, World Vision's Bruce Wilkinson, a leader with RAPIDS, said, "Today is a day to celebrate."

And it was. Salvation Army–supported youth put on a skit. Women, mostly widows, sang and danced. A choir of children moved the audience with their song, "I know the Lord will make a way for me." Young women, led by American Idol finalist Melinda Doolittle, performed the hymn "Amazing Grace."

Mrs. Bush presented an American face that poverty-stricken Zambians rarely see. "Zambia is a strong partner with the United States," she said. "Our two countries are working to advance goals shared by people everywhere: improved opportunities for families, economic empowerment, and, most of all, good health."

Mrs. Bush, seemingly oblivious to the blazing mid-day sun and the raging debate over faith-based HIV-prevention through abstinence programs, drove home the role of faith-based organizations in the fight against HIV, malaria, and other diseases.

This is a theme she'd taken up starting the day before in Mozambique. "Faith-based organizations have local connections," she said at a Maputo, Mozambique, seminary. "Churches, monasteries, temples, mosques, and synagogues have gone where no one else would." Places of worship are community centers, she said: "They serve as focal points for education, for distribution of commodities, and for advocacy for the needs of their people."

Mututa seemed the right place to drive this point home. "One of the greatest sources of hope is the compassion of people of faith," she said. "In the United States and around the world, I have seen how houses of worship inspire volunteers with their messages of charity and hope."

The impact of faith-based initiatives is evident, Mrs. Bush said. "Millions of people have heard these messages, and they are putting their faith into practice across the continent of Africa." In case there was a doubter in the audience, she cited an immediate example. "Here at Mututa, parents and caregivers know very well the healing power of faith," she added.

Later, Christianity Today asked Zambian First Lady Mwanawasa whether advancing abstinence using public resources was an issue in Zambia. "Not at all," she said. "As Zambians, we consider churches one of our biggest partners." The teaching of the church is critical, she said: "The message of abstinence is very important in preventing new infections."

She mentioned another plus, too. "It brings dignity to young people," Zambian First Lady Mwanawasa said. "It must continue."

Will Aid Continue?

During the program at Mututa, Bishop Joshua Banda, pastor of one of the largest Assemblies of God churches in the country, sat in the fourth row.

The bishop was encouraged by what he heard. "This is really heart-warming," he told CT. Banda, whose church runs a PEPFAR-funded project for orphans and vulnerable children, has followed closely the abstinence debate in the U.S. and is concerned.

"Will there be PEPFAR funding after the end of the Bush administration?" he asked, calling the possibility of losing it "heart-breaking." Banda said he prays that the Bush-backed funding to help Africa fight HIV through encouraging abstinence continues. (The Bush administration has asked Congress for another $30 billion to fight HIV for the next five years.)

Banda is disappointed that abstinence remains a topic of debate in the U.S. "We are beyond that," he said, before dashing to his car to beat the Lusaka traffic jam worsened by Mrs. Bush's convoy.

After a quick Zambian lunch at Mututa, Mrs. Bush was back on the road headed for Chreso Ministries, another PEPFAR-funded, faith-based HIV/AIDS initiative. Chreso started as an outreach of a local church founded by Lusaka-based German preacher Helmut Reutter.

The ministry encourages voluntary testing and provides antiretroviral medications to 2,500 adults and 100 children. Mrs. Bush's tour of the health facility ended in the church's sanctuary, where she chatted informally with staff and patients.

After the Chreso visit, Mrs. Bush was taken a little outside of Lusaka to a rural project that serves as a transit home for street children and also offers microfinance opportunities to women from surrounding communities. Mrs. Bush was pleased to see women "able to take care of themselves."

Speaking at a formal evening event just before her departure, Mrs. Bush again commented on the role of faith-based organizations.

"We saw very moving and sweet faith-based projects, where ministers and pastors and imams are working in their communities to extend the reach of care to people who are either ill or vulnerable," she said. "America stands with you."

Mrs. Bush arrives back in the United States this weekend.

Related Elsewhere:

Tim Morgan commented on Laura Bush's visit to Africa in CT Liveblog.

More about the First Lady's trip, including her June 27 and 28 remarks, is available from her White House webpage.

Our other articles on AIDS/HIV and Africa are available online.

News from Laura Bush's visit to Zambia includes:

Bound for Africa, First Lady Defends AIDS Relief | Interview with First Lady Laura Bush a week before she travels to Africa, where she will assess the progress of President George W. Bush's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. (NPR's All Things Considered)
Laura Bush: Religious Groups Key to Aid | First lady Laura Bush promoted the role of faith-based organizations in combating disease in Africa as she launched an anti-malaria campaign in Zambia on Thursday. (The Washington Post)
Zambia to get extra $266 mln in US AIDS funds | - Zambia will receive an extra $266 million in U.S. help to fight AIDS, officials said on Thursday, as U.S. first lady Laura Bush launched the distribution of 500,000 mosquito nets in the African country. (Reuters)
In Africa with first lady, Jenna Bush steals the show | Jenna Bush grabs international spotlight traveling to Africa with her mother. (CNN)

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