By David Grubbs
When I returned to Africa in 1969, this time as a missionary doctor, the leading cause of death in Africa was malaria. Little did I know then that an infectious tsunami was building that would one day overwhelm not only the continent of Africa, but especially the place where God had called us to serve, Zimbabwe (then called Rhodesia).
AIDS originated in Africa somewhere in the equatorial forests, probably in the Republic of Congo. In 1959, in Kinshasa, Republic of Congo, a blood sample was taken from an African man who died with symptoms resembling sickle-cell anemia. Doctors who treated him saved the blood sample. And in 1998 a research team from the University of Washington in Seattle reported in the journal Nature the discovery of the AIDS virus in that sample.
In 1974-76, in our hospital at Mashoko Mission, we began to see in some patients in their 20s and 30s a mixture of infections that did not respond to treatment. Most of them had pulmonary tuberculosis complicated by other infections. Some had a cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma. No matter how aggressively we treated them, they wasted away and died.
Personally, I felt guilty for having failed to adequately diagnose their problem and treat it. Little did we know that in 1981 the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta would report similar health issues in gay males in hospitals in Los Angeles and San Francisco. In 1982 the term AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) was first used to describe the disease.
AIDS is now the leading cause of death in Africa, overtaking malaria, and is the fourth overall cause of death worldwide—after heart disease, strokes, and respiratory infections. Zimbabwe has the dubious distinction of being the world’s most-infected country. The BBC reports that more than 25 percent of the population of Zimbabwe is HIV-positive. In some of Zimbabwe’s large cities, 40 percent of the population is infected. It is estimated that 80 percent of the soldiers in the Zimbabwe army are HIV-positive.
When we returned to Zimbabwe in 1983, after the Zimbabwe War, AIDS was already at early epidemic proportions. Perhaps fearful that reports of the disease would adversely affect the tourist trade, the new Zimbabwe government forbade our putting AIDS as a contributing cause on death certificates. When we challenged their decision, we were told that “officially” AIDS did not exist in Zimbabwe. A few years later this official position was reversed, but valuable time was lost in starting education programs that might have slowed down the overwhelming misery that now exists in Zimbabwe due to the AIDS epidemic.
When Christians in Zimbabwe became aware of AIDS, and the fact that in Zimbabwe a person was almost always infected by heterosexual contact (usually via the prostitute population), their response was to say, “That is what they deserve.” It was only when missionaries and more enlightened African church leaders helped the church to see the issue through the lens of Scripture, and experience taught them that innocents were also infected, that the response changed.
Nurse Kathy McCarty, at Chidamoyo Mission Hospital, began an innovative program that blended medicine, social concerns, and a biblical response. She organized and taught response teams composed of African nurses and ministers to make monthly home visits to provide spiritual, emotional, and medical care to the patient and his/her family.
We adopted the program at Mashoko Hospital, and it soon spread to many places in Zimbabwe and other countries in Africa. In fact, governments and aid agencies adopted the medical and social portions of the program.
When the church in Zimbabwe turned the disaster into an opportunity for compassionate care, we witnessed some wonderful results. Not only did we see numerous AIDS sufferers and their loved ones turn to the Lord and become Christians, but we saw new churches planted in their homes and villages.
Hope for Zimbabwe?
It would be wonderful to report that, as a result of the response of the church, the AIDS epidemic is retreating in Zimbabwe. That is not the case. The economy and educational level in Zimbabwe is high enough to provide a wide open road for AIDS to travel, but not high enough to reverse it.
However, it has reached a grim turning point: the number of HIV-related deaths is outstripping the number of new infections. With a national health budget of less than $10 per person per year, the Zimbabwe government does not have the resources to stem the tide of HIV/AIDS. Life expectancy at birth is now down to 38 years.
However, Zimbabwe is not a country without hope, which is a coping strategy Africans have learned through many centuries of hardship. While they have developed “a hundred and one” coping strategies, without Jesus there is little hope in the foreseeable future. That is the hope we can supply.
Our Christian hospitals in Zimbabwe have aggressive HIV/AIDS programs to care for the needs of individuals and families suffering as a result of the illness. Our Zimbabwe churches, linked together with our medical programs, work to bring suffering people the saving grace of Jesus. Together, they bring real hope—eternal hope. While the tsunami of the AIDS epidemic has not been stemmed, it has been redirected to bring something good out of an unbelievable tragedy.
Dr. David Grubbs serves as part-time executive minister with Parkside Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. He served almost two decades in African missionary hospitals.