Amref’s Afya Kamilifu Project partners with religious leaders to tackle HIV/AIDS

Pastor Shukuru Steven Maloda, 52, a leading pastor of the KKKT Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania (ELCT) for the entire diocese of the East Coast community in Zanzibar believes that through well-crafted religious messages, the war on HIV and AIDS can be won easily. It is for this reason that he has teamed up with Amref, through its flagship project, Afya Kamilifu. 

A pastor of Mwanakerekwe, and the leader of Zanzibar missionary, Pastor Shukuru first came to know about Afya Kamilifu in 2020. “We were informed of this program from Amref, and we were all educated about what to do in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and also to manage the cases of already HIV positive persons,” he says.

Pastor Shukuru Steven Maloda pictured at the church offices in Zanzibar

Through the project, Pastor Shukuru, along with his associates were told how faith can help people to abstain from practices that lead to HIV infections. Foremost, as the biblical verses show, they were told not to judge the affected, but instead, to empathize with them and give them the necessary help.  Through seminars, they were drilled on voluntary counselling and testing, and how to carry out clinical referrals. “We now know that being HIV positive is not a death penalty like most of us used to believe; what is important is how to manage the situation through care, treatment, and positive living,” he says.  The training of religious leaders has indeed created a trickle-down effect to the congregates. The messages have now drilled into the ears of the church attendants during Sunday sermons. The congregants are told not to fear, and to seek help whenever they are not okay. To make the message more driven home, they conduct separate church seminars, targeting youth, women, and men. The messages for these groups are tailored to suit their taste, in an easy-to-understand manner.

They also told about other diseases. “The counselling has been very unique; people used to think that when you arrive at the counselling centre the first thing is they will test you for HIV but the case is different,” he says. Before one is counselled for HIV/AIDS, professional counsellors engage the person about his life history, which helps the counsellor to advise the client on the best healthy living methods. The client does not necessarily need to be tested for HIV/AIDS.  Through centres established by Amref Afya Kamilifu project, HIV+ clients are able to get the necessary medication and counselling services. “There are testimonies from people whose lives have been touched and transformed. At first, they had given up and were living carelessly but after meeting these counsellors their lives have changed for good,” Pastor Shukuru assuredly says.

Given the spiritual powers that religious leaders command in many African communities, their words are taken as the gospel truth, including when they talk about matters of HIV/AIDS. Such has been the method that bearing fruits in the Afya Kamilifu project areas in Zanzibar. The more the word goes out about this program the more people keep joining the program for help. “I think Amref Afya Kamilifu is doing a good job and has the right people for this program,” he says. The church has laws and commandments, that people know help emphasize the teachings and God’s grace.

To reach out to many folks, Pastor Shukuru says his church has toned down its previous judgmental approach that associated HIV/AIDS with punishment for sin. “We are no longer judgmental anymore. Amref has been blessed by God to bring help to the society, and the church acts as a bridge to reach to the people,” he says. 

Pastor Shukuru believes that this approach, which started in Zanzibar can be used throughout the country to change the thinking on HIV/AIDS management. “It is not the end; we have to preach to people all over the country and keep spreading awareness about what Amref has given us. We have to move forward with positivity in our plan to reach many people so as they can get the right information and right service,” he adds.  Since initiating the project in Zanzibar, Pastor Shukuru has been working with other religious leaders from other denominations, moving from house to house, expanding the network in the process.

For Pastor Shukuru, there is still a need for more awareness, especially for married couples. He cautions against the complacency of those who think being in a marriage shields one from sexually transmitted diseases. “They forget that they are two people living together, and everyone has his or her secrets,” he says, before adding: “We need to keep the fight, so that as many people as possible, including pregnant women, know about their health status in order to protect themselves and the unborn children.” Leveraging the synergies between the church’s wide network and Amref’s Afya Kamilifu project, Pastor Shukuru believes that the fight against HIV/AIDs can eventually be won.

Pastor Shukuru says that the church is now well-positioned for the fight. Before any marriage, the couples are encouraged to first undergo voluntary HIV testing. In addition, the church conducts regular seminars for married people and child care. All this is delivered by well-trained professionals. “Through our Sunday sermons, we normally emphasize that the safety of the family depends on living a healthy lifestyle, just like how Joseph and Maria cared for the safety of their son Jesus,” he says.  The congregants are further encouraged to undergo regular health check-ups.

Pastor Shukuru believes that one of the ways of sustaining such anti-HIV/AIDS efforts is continued cooperation among religious leaders. Fusing faith and professional advice, Pastor Shukuru assure us that the fight against AIDS will be won. Moreover, services are conducted with utmost secrecy, making the program trustworthy as many people keep opening up about their situations.