Although prayers may have their place, Charles Pensulo explores different opinions to the role of religious leaders when it comes to treating HIV.
I first met Ruth Namadzi on World Aids Day of 2014 and my first impression was that of a nutritionist or still someone who owns a restaurant. She had in front of her various food dishes, which not only gave sweet smell but also had an attractive look. There was nsima made from whole maize grain, fried meat together with a variety of vegetables and milk, among others.
She looked energetic and full of smiles as she briefed the guests on her food items on how they are important to people living with HIV. Later I found out that Namadzi is a pastor, and a self-made activist who has been living with HIV for 10 years with nothing but the food as her defense weapon.
“I went for testing in 2005 after the death of my husband. I wasn’t ill but the messages I were getting on radio made me eager to know my status. It was then that I tested positive and I received the message well,” said Namadzi.
Nutritious food is key to treating HIV
The clinician at the hospital advised Namadzi to be taking healthy foods among other things for her to live a healthier life. By then, her immunity was at a good level which did not require her to be taking antiretrovirals (ARVs) to treat the HIV.
That was when she started Oasis of Love, Orphans, Widows, and Elderly Care, a faith-based organization for which she is a pastor in one of its local ministries. The organisation advises people living with HIV with specific targets on orphans, widows and elders in the church.
“I noticed that many people living with the virus don’t eat healthier food either because they don’t know how to prepare it or they lack resources,” says Namadzi. “With food that I grow and help from charity people, I involved an organisation which deals with malnutrition food and they taught me how best I can prepare it.”
With these skills under her disposal, Ruth went ahead to involve many church members and she reaches people in four districts of the country as of now, but like the story of other small organisations, funding has always been a problem.
Prayers and ARV treatment
“When I heard that some pastors are praying for people and telling them to dump the medication I felt bad because some people would fall ill again and then die,” says Namadzi.
She has also been using pastoral meeting to address the issue of HIV to her colleagues.
“It’s not like there is no healing, no, but the fact is it’s medical people who confirm whether someone is living with HIV, it should also be the same people to confirm if someone doesn’t [need medication],” she says, adding: “I’ve been encouraging pastors to go for testing because some pastors are also found with HIV and I encourage them to live like I do.”
Prayers and healing
The story of Namadzi is completely different to Andrew Damiano’s (name changed), 40, who lives in Zomba, eastern Malawi.
Diagnosed with HIV in 2007, he resolved to go for prayers with one of the Pentecostal churches.
According to him, he met a pastor who encouraged Andrew to not accept his HIV status.
“I was praying together with the pastor’s assistance and 10 days later I heard a voice that I’ve been healed. When I went for testing the results confirmed what I’ve already heard in the voice.”
He added that the results were confirmed by the various tests that he has been undergoing since then, giving him total assurance that he has been healed from HIV.
Caution over claims of healing
The story of Andrew is not new in Malawi where various reports have emerged of pastors urging people to stop taking the drugs after they have prayed for them. Nor is it the case that this is restricted to Malawi.
A quick check online shows various testimonies from people who assert they have been healed and other blogs encouraging people to consult them for prayers on the same.
Master Mphande, executive director of National Association for People Living with HIV and AIDS in Malawi, told me this practice by some preachers has proved fatal to other people.
“We’ve heard instances where people die after quitting ARVs because prophets tell them so,” says Mphande.
He adds that much as their organisation is not against people living with HIV being prayed for healing from pastors or prophets, it’s only at the clinic where they can recommend if it is okay to stop taking medication.
He added that some of the prophets say those things just to get popularity from people.
Today, Namadzi is still not taking ARVs and only given the antibiotic, Bactrim, and she attributes this to her healthy diet.
With enough funding, she hopes to expand her organisation to reach even those outside her church.
Find out how Malawi is confronting challenges in the HIV response