Today's January Series speaker was Peter Okaalet of MAP International, and the subject of his presentation was a grave one: the AIDS crisis in Africa. Still recovering a bit from Gerard Straub's moving presentation about poverty, I braced myself for another emotionally traumatic experience. But as with Straub's speech, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Okaalet's talk was not just a litany of shocking statistics, but rather an educational look at a serious world crisis--and what can be done to combat it.
The fact that there is an AIDS crisis in Africa is not a surprise to most of you, I suspect. But I was taken aback both by the extent of the problem and by the many different avenues through which it must be confronted. Let me list just a few of the specific items that I learned from Okaalet's talk:
- There are countries in Africa in which the percentage of adults with HIV/AIDS approaches 40%. It's a staggering statistic--ponder for a moment what that number will mean for the next generation in these countries.
- Okaalet listed out life expectancy statistics from a number of African nations, including Angola, Batswana, Malawi, and Mozambique. In some cases, the life expectancy has dropped from over 70 to under 30 since AIDS arrived on the scene. My brain can hardly process those numbers--truly stunning.
- Many African cultures put great value in local and family communities--certainly something to be praised. But the strength of these communities can ironically also work against AIDS prevention, in that families and communities often wait to follow a leader's guidance when it comes to preventative behaviors. Many community leaders--including, unfortunately, church leaders--still do not promote the appropriate behavior for avoiding (and responding to) AIDS. Even in church communities, AIDS victims are stigmatized and banished.
- "Brain drain"--Okaalet remarked that it's better thought of as full-blown "brain flight"--is a serious problem in the fight against AIDS. The "brain drain" he's referring to is the fact that a very large percentage of African doctors, scientists, and AIDS researchers leave Africa to practice their trades in other countries.... thus removing their expertise from areas where it's needed the most. Every year, thousands of medical experts and doctors emigrate from Africa.
- Okaalet cited one or two examples that suggested that Christian organizations are more effective in the AIDS fight when they work with local denominations and groups without getting sidetracked by non-vital theological confrontation or arguments. In one example he referenced, his organization helped a local denomination do away with the practice of polygamy not by making it a central moral issue, but by working quietly alongside the denomination until it came to the realization on its own that polygamy was a roadblock to AIDS prevention.
- Okaalet also sees promising potential in interfaith AIDS prevention efforts--specifically between Muslims and Christians. Already, Christian and Muslim organizations are sharing ideas and resources (such as educational curricula) about how best to prevent the spread of AIDS. Okaalet believes that this sort of cooperation is not only important in reducing the AIDS crisis, but has the side benefit of reducing tension between the two religious groups.
Overall, it was a very informative and thought-provoking presentation. The main thrust of Okaalet's talk was that Christians do have a very important role in the fight against AIDS--a role that can't be filled by pure medical science or non-religious international organization. Medical science has made amazing strides in helping the AIDS fight, but because much of the AIDS crisis is exacerbated by human factors that can't be treated by medicine, it's important that the spiritual, behavioral, and psychological angles be addressed. For organizations like Okaalet's MAP International, that means working with local church congregations and communities to educate leaders and young people about AIDS, then encouraging those people to spread that knowledge to others in their social circles. This approach has been demonstrated to have a tangible, positive effect.
The work to be done is daunting--overwhelmingly so, if you think about it--but that means that there are countless opportunities for each of us to do our part, whether it's by supporting a worthy cause, traveling to Africa to help with education efforts, or anything in between. In what ways, big or small, can you and your church contribute to the fight against AIDS?