Freddy Muzungu stands to speak at the end of a lively two-hour Sunday morning church service, knowing it will be a challenge to hold the interest of the 50 or so people who have remained behind. The first-time visitor has come to speak about HIV-AIDS.
It’s not a new topic for the people of Bunia, a city of about 330,000 located in a northeast province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Few families in the area have been left untouched by HIV; decades of warfare killed millions of people throughout the country and fuelled the spread of HIV-AIDS through widespread sexual violence against women.
Not long into his talk, the soft-spoken Freddy asks the married couples in the audience, “How many of you were tested for HIV before you were married?”
Not a single hand goes up.
For Freddy, it’s another confirmation that the sacrifices he makes to travel throughout East Congo are still needed to combat the spread of HIV-AIDS. His work with SIL, Wycliffe’s key partner field organization, is helping to educate his countrymen about the pandemic and offer a biblical perspective. His key resource in the epic battle is a simple, but compelling 40-page booklet about a girl named Kande.
Simple But Effective
For many Congolese citizens, the subject of HIV-AIDS is shrouded in superstition and misunderstanding. Some still believe the HIV virus can be passed by contact with someone’s skin or clothing, or that evil spirits are to blame.
Armed with a good supply of the Kande story, Freddy travels frequently to hold week-long seminars for churches, schools and community associations that go a long way to dispel some of the myths surrounding HIV.
Shellbook Publishing Systems first published the true-to-life, illustrated story, about a young girl left orphaned by AIDS, in 2004. Currently administered by the Life Access Technology Trust, shellbooks are short, illustrated curriculum modules that address a wide variety of topics in an easy-to-adapt, digital format.
Since 1989, these “curriculum shells” have helped millions of speakers from minority languages to access life-crucial teaching and learning material localized in their mother tongue.
Personnel from Wycliffe received permission to adapt the Kande story shell booklet, create a facilitator’s manual and make it available to teams involved in Bible translation and literacy. Since then, it has been translated into 178 languages in 24 countries—most of them in Africa (see “Small Book, Big Impact." In the DRC alone, it is available in 21 languages.
Throughout Africa, the Kande seminars help present the facts surrounding HIV-AIDS. They also promote Bible studies and discussions about related subjects like sexual purity, faithfulness in marriage and other examples of what it means to follow Christ in these areas of life.
Furthermore, the story portrays the church as a place where Kande and her siblings find love, acceptance and support. After a neighbour boy invites them to church, they’re permitted to work on the church’s community farm and keep or sell the food they grow. Later, when the children learn that they can no longer live with one of their relatives, a Christian woman who had helped care for their dying mother invites them to move in with her.
Freddy’s brief presentation at Brazza Church in Bunia followed an energetic service that included singing, dancing and preaching. By the time the pastor introduced him to the mix of about 50 men, women and children, the morning breeze had grown still and some elderly parishioners had dozed off in the growing heat.
Assisted by a local colleague, Freddy (pictured at left) enlisted help from those assembled to act out a skit that illustrates how the HIV virus weakens its victim’s immune system and makes it more susceptible to disease. That was followed by an engaging question-and-answer session that elicited plenty of giggles, but many serious responses, too. There was even a bit of competition involved; those who correctly answered Freddy’s questions were rewarded with Swahili translations of the Kande story.
Freddy speaks Swahili, but his mother tongue is Mangbetu. Now 40, he was just emerging from his teens when warfare in DRC began to escalate in the mid-’90s. He knew many women who were sexually assaulted by groups of armed men during that time—including one of his nieces. Another niece was overpowered by a lone attacker; both were so ravaged that they required reconstructive surgery.
“During the war,” says Freddy, “it was traumatizing to see how people died . . . and also to see how people were suffering without any assistance. It affected me very much.
“I found strength in the Word of God, and through prayer.”
Freddy yearned to help the suffering people he saw all around him. After completing high school, he worked for two years as a nurse in a local hospital. During that time, SIL staffers (SIL is Wycliffe's key field partner) enlisted his help in Bible translation and literacy work among the Mangbetu.
He did that for three years, before moving into a role that helps promote the use of the translated Scriptures among many other language groups in DRC. In 2006, Freddy was introduced to the Kande story at a Scripture use conference in Nairobi, Kenya. With his medical experience and his background in promoting the use of mother-tongue Scripture, he knew the booklet would be a valuable resource in the fight against HIV-AIDS in DRC.
Freddy has a personal stake in the battle, too—his own sister has AIDS. He has watched her deal with the loneliness and isolation that many AIDS sufferers must endure.
In DRC, HIV-AIDS victims, as well as victims of sexual assault, frequently face rejection from friends and neighbours—and even their own families. Some female victims, left to desperately fend for themselves, turn to prostitution to help them survive. Freddy knows about this, too, as some of his own female relatives felt they had to make that choice in order to survive.
In 2011, Freddy visited each of the 21 Congolese language groups that now have translations of the Kande story to hold week-long teaching seminars. That means frequent separations from his wife, Esperance, and their three children.
“It’s one of the challenges of this work,” he says. “Every time I am away from my family, I miss them so much.”
But Freddy feels compelled to equip people with the truth about HIV-AIDS—especially those from rural language groups.
“The villagers die the most from AIDS,” says Freddy, “because even though there is a national education program, it only stops at larger centres. It doesn’t get into the villages. . . .”
According to recent media reports, the medical aid agency Doctors Without Borders has warned that some 85 per cent of AIDS patients in DRC are not getting the treatment they need. The agency estimated that up to 15,000 AIDS victims in the country could die in the next three years because of difficulty getting life-saving drugs.
In that context, Freddy holds Kande seminars in churches, but when appropriate he also approaches village chiefs for permission to teach communities at large. The storybook’s five chapters serve as teaching and discussion guides for the five-day seminars, with much interaction between teacher and students.
At the same time, Freddy consults with pastors and community leaders to select key individuals who potentially could be trained to organize additional Kande seminars in the region. During previous visits to Bunia, Freddy has helped train several people who are highly motivated to prevent the spread of HIV-AIDS in their community and reach out to people marginalized by the virus.
Neema Androsi attended a Kande seminar in 2008. The widow and mother of seven lives in a small house in Bunia, where she grows a few vegetables in the garden outside her house. Six of the children are hers, while the seventh, a 12-year-old niece, was left orphaned after her parents died from AIDS-related illnesses in 2004.
At that time, Neema knew little about HIV or AIDS. Although she took over the responsibility of caring for her niece, Neema was fearful that the girl had HIV—which she didn’t—and that she would infect her and her children.
“I didn’t accept her . . . and even refused to let her play with my children, or shake hands or sleep in the same bed.”
But after Neema attended the Kande seminar, her attitude towards her niece began to change.
“The teachings from Kande’s story,” says Neema, “helped me to love her . . . and realize she was not bad.”
Inspired by what she had learned, Neema grew determined to educate her own children, women in her church and her entire community about HIV-AIDS. To that end, she now speaks regularly on RTK, a local FM radio station. Speaking in her mother tongue, Ndruna, Neema uses the Kande story and other materials to challenge false ideas about AIDS and encourage her listeners to live by biblical standards.
Through her radio messages, Neema has become a strong voice in her city and beyond. But she’s not alone; others in Bunia are actively teaching the principles found in Kande’s story and providing practical assistance to AIDS sufferers.
For example, DRC’s Christian Association for the Fight Against AIDS (ACLS) also works to promote biblical principles and Christian moral values in its fight against the pandemic.
Pierre Alimasi wa Penge, who co-ordinates the agency’s activities in Bunia, says the non-profit ministry was birthed in 2006 out of the desire to educate Congolese Christians in particular about the causes and prevention of HIV-AIDS, and to encourage a compassionate response to its victims.
The former youth worker says that in the past, Christians in DRC considered HIV victims to be on the same social level as prostitutes.
“Society discriminated against them and [so did] the church.”
As a youth leader, Pierre felt a responsibility to teach his youth group the facts about HIV-AIDS. In 2008, he met Freddy and attended a Kande seminar. Ever since, ACLS has used the Kande story and its complementary materials to help educate students, church groups and even prison inmates.
The small charity has more vision than operating funds. But they do what they can to slow the spread of the pandemic and assist people who are suffering as a result of HIV or AIDS (see “Field of Dreams”).
Freddy is grateful for the growing network of individuals and organizations that are battling HIV and discrimination using the Kande story and mother-tongue Scripture, translated with the help of Wycliffe personnel and training of locals. While he wonders at times if he’s making a difference, Freddy sees progress, albeit slow.
Two years ago, Freddy visited one village to hold a seminar. Afterwards, three young men came to him—in tears. They had first heard Freddy teach in 2009, and when he returned the following year, they came to thank him.
“They told me that my teaching made their lives better. They said before, their lives were full of bad things.”
The men confided to Freddy that when he first came to teach in their village, they were sexually promiscuous. But after attending the seminar, they felt convicted by God’s Word . As a result, they had changed their behaviour and were even helping people they knew who were afflicted by HIV.
Those and other encouraging responses help Freddy persevere through the hard times, especially when he’s on the road and misses his family.
“It’s really hard for me. But my wife understands and she says, ‘You are working for the Lord.’
“Some even give themselves to the Lord because of the teaching,” says Freddy. “That’s the real benefit of this work. That’s what makes me happy.”