Our recent trip to East Africa had its genesis at Sorrento Centre in 1996 when Rev. Stephen Mungoma from Uganda invited those present to come to Africa and experience the African Church. This fall a group of thirteen people from across Canada accepted the invitation and spent the month of November in Kenya and Uganda. We experienced the African church in many ways: in a confirmation service in a village church filled to overflowing; in a Eucharist at Namirembe Cathedral; in meetings in synod offices; in children's lively praise songs; in prayers with the sick and dying.

But mostly we met the church in the daily lives of people whose evangelical faith informs their every action. In particular, the response of so many ordinary Christian people to the AIDS pandemic helps explain one reason that Uganda has been so successful in reducing the prevalence of AIDS.

Uganda was one of the first countries in which AIDS was recognized, the first African country to acknowledge the problem, the first to mobilize the local population to help one another and the first to seek help from the international community. At one time it was estimated that close to 30% of the population was HIV positive. Though it is difficult to obtain accurate statistics the prevalence rate nationally is now considered to be about 5-6 %.

There was not one person we met who was not personally affected by HIV/ AIDS. Everyone had lost relatives and friends; every homestead has many graves; virtually everyone is supporting nieces, nephews or grandchildren of deceased relatives and the extended family structures are stretched to the limit. In the face of these enormous challenges the people of Uganda have responded with amazing resilience, openness, faith and determination.

Much of the work in AIDS prevention in Uganda has been done by many small grass roots organizations. The vast majority of these are faith-based.

Margaret McAvity (with blue scarf) and other Canadian women with grandmothers, young orphans and community workers. Edith Wakumire, founder of Uganda Women Concern Ministry is seated on her left (Marks McAvity photo)

In 1991 Edith Wakumire, the executive director of Uganda Women Concern Ministry (UWCM), left the relative security of a salaried position in a teacher training college to help build the capacity of her local community to prevent and alleviate the suffering caused by HIV/AIDS. Through the parish churches Edith and her colleagues formed community mobilization teams to assess needs, identify counselors, support people living with AIDS, and assist orphans, widows, the elderly and vulnerable children. Since 1991 over 1500 families affected and infected with HIV/AIDS have been empowered through counseling, education, home-based care and income generating activities.

Initially Edith financed the work out of her own resources, but as it expanded she was able to receive funding from the Ugandan Ministry of Health and other sources. UWCM has received awards of recognition from the United Nations, and from World Vision International.

Edith Wakumire came to British Columbia in 1994 and during that time established links with two congregations in the Diocese of BC who have been helping her with her work: St. Mary's Church, Metchosin, and St. George's Cadboro Bay.

UWCM is only one example of many community groups that have done a tremendous job in eradicating AIDS.

A large part of the credit must also go to the Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, who personally monitors the AIDS campaign. Ignoring cultural taboos about discussing sex, President Museveni has directed all government officials to talk openly and frankly about AIDS, and about safe sex. Uganda has become a place where people feel free to talk about the disease, to take responsibility for their own behaviour, and to accept and care for those affected - in contrast to other countries where governments try to cover up and save face, where people are shunned, and the problem is denied.

The approach to AIDS education in Uganda is referred to as the ABC approach. ABSTINENCE before marriage; BE FAITHFUL to one partner; use a CONDOM.

For many years people in Uganda had little or no treatment for AIDS and simply died at home. Since June 2004 the Uganda government has been able through the World Health Organization and other international funding to provide some antiretroviral medication which will help to prolong lives. This is accompanied by education to encourage people who will now live longer to live healthy lives and not pass on the virus to others.

Uganda has made amazing strides in reduction of AIDS cases, but it still has many ill people and numerous orphans to care for. The people of Uganda can be rightly proud of what they have accomplished, but they know they cannot be complacent. They must remain ever vigilant in continuing their campaign of public awareness, and in maintaining and extending provision of medical services. Neither can we in Canada be complacent. Our brothers and sisters in Africa invite us to walk with them, weep with them, and work with them.

In November, 2004, Margaret and husband Marks McAvity accompanied a group of Canadians on an excursion to "experience the African Church." The McAvitys can be contacted at mcavity@primus.ca