AIDS in Kenya: Loving the Affected and Infected

Interview With Military Bishop Rotich

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NAIROBI, Kenya, FEB. 14, 2011 (Zenit.org).- The Church does not judge those infected with AIDS. Rather, it seeks to be a faithful companion and thus becomes "affected" -- drawn in with sympathy.



This is a reflection offered by Bishop Alfred Kipkoech Arap Rotich when he spoke with the television program "Where God Weeps" of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need.

In this interview, Bishop Rotich considers various facets to the problem of AIDS in Kenya, speaking of the "children left behind" and explaining why Kenyans found that condoms are not the solution to AIDS.

Q: Your name is Rotich, which sounds almost like a Germanic name. What is the meaning of your family name?

Bishop Rotich: In my family in Kenya, Rotich means that my father was born at the time when the cows were ready for milking in the dairy and that is about 3 o’clock in the afternoon. So I took the last six letters of the name of my father and I’m called Arap, the son of Rotich -- basically it means a shepherd leading a procession, and it happens that I now lead a procession in the Church.

Q: Your Excellency, you are also a colonel for the armed forces in Kenya. How did this come about?

Bishop Rotich: It came as a ministry of the Church. It is part and parcel of our pastoral work in the country that the armed forces are given an opportunity, too, to have a reason for their faith and to be chaplained by the indigenous clergy. After 10 years as a chaplain, I was ordained a bishop.

Q: Kenya is one of the powerhouses in Africa and yet, at the same time, a great majority of the population lives below the poverty line. Why is there a disparity between wealth and poverty in Kenya? How did this come about?

Bishop Rotich: When people are selfish and it comes to sharing, they want to have the best for themselves. But I think it has provided an opportunity for reflection and discernment on how this is done. When there is a level of corruption, when there is a level of selfishness, there is already a demarcation; there is already a line that divides between the rich and the poor. The richness here maybe is superficial, because the richness of a country is an endowment in which people are given a share of the good that is present in the society. So this has been a challenge and I’m sure all leaders are trying to grapple with this idea.

Q: What is the bishops' conference doing to address this question of poverty and the disparity of wealth?

Bishop Rotich: The bishops have come out with pastoral letters appealing to the society, especially the leadership, and all the people of the country to look at the human person -- that the human person needs to be at the center of development, the dignity of the individual. And therefore, if my brother or sister is suffering, then all eyes should turn to them and raise that concern as our problem.

Q: There is ongoing listening and dialogue with regard to the question of AIDS, which has struck Africa particularly hard, in fact the hardest among all the continents. We see that approximately 300 Kenyans are dying every day of AIDS. Why is AIDS so prevalent in this country?

Bishop Rotich: There are many reasons why AIDS is increasing on a daily basis. But, I think, the government and the civil society, the churches, have taken measures to address this issue. While we do not want to judge the person who is affected, we want to be a faithful companion to the affected and by being a faithful companion of the infected we become affected, therefore, it draws our sympathy. We need to move toward them in order to, first of all, assure them that all is not lost.

Q: This is an important question because I was reading that in Kenya, many women, for example, are afraid to have AIDS testing because if the husband finds out, the husband who is the sole bread winner, he may leave. And so this issue of accompaniment on the part of the Church, I can imagine, is very important.

Bishop Rotich: Yes, there are a number of projects and initiatives that have been taken up by the Church, and in fact, if you go to the city of Nairobi there is a program in the Eastern dinaries especially, sponsored by child groups such as Maryknoll, under the supervision of expert priests and care providers, and you realize that the Church is there and asking the people not to fear and come for a test. Of course, since it is a disease that is associated with extramarital relationships, people will not come directly to say that they have it because they will be judged by society. But that is slowly wearing down and people are advised to go for testing even during their pre-marriage education/courses. During the entire series of sessions they are enabled by the Church and are assured that their situation is not the end of life. [...] Yes, there have been situations where the husband has rejected [his wife] but there are counseling services offered in case this happens and they too bring a sense of understanding and empathy to the other person.

Q: One of the big problems facing AIDS and those affected with AIDS are the children. Many of these children have become heads of households.

Bishop Rotich: Yes, this is a big challenge for us. But again, in the African society, we are more or less a community. If one is affected -- say a parent or a mother or both parents are gone - the society will come around; but you realize now that there is a great migration to the cities. So when this happens sometimes the children are left alone.

Q: This community aspect breaks down in the cities?

Bishop Rotich: Yes, it breaks down and this is one of the values that we would like to come back to; to insist that we are a family. So, whenever there are orphans in these communities the Church is trying its best, using every resource. And the fast resource is empathy. We see congregations of sisters going, on a daily basis, to manage the situation and to solicit the efforts of the community in trying to help the children

Q: This is the response of the Church, but there has been the response of the world if you will, or many international organizations, which have come with the condom solution. You lead a protest against the spread of condoms in Kenya. Why are condoms not the solution for the prevention of HIV/AIDS?

Bishop Rotich: Yes, we saw that it was not the solution. We called upon the young people not to listen to the providers of condoms because we saw that they were trying to educate the people even at a very young age to engage in sex. [...] We felt that the morality of the country was going down. So as an educational aid there was a need, especially by the pastors, to speak out against this and to promote abstinence, which is now a program that we brought to the schools, and, as we speak, there is a curricula in the schools. 

Now the government, the ministry of education, is listening to this because they say condoms are not the solution but provision of a values-based system will in time equip the inner passion to strongly come out and say, for this I can wait. There is time for everything and to wait for the time when they are in married life. So we said, we start with the children, granted that they’re the people who have been affected. Don't give us a route or a road map to supply things that are foreign to our culture, foreign to our sense of values.

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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for "Where God Weeps," a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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On the Net:

Where God Weeps: www.WhereGodWeeps.org

Aid to the Church in Need: www.acn-intl.org