AIDS & Cultural Background

by Hanna Steffens

Personal experiences in South Africa, June–August 2003

On June 13th I took part in an official religious “Cleansing, Healing and Symbolic Reparations Ceremony” of the Mpumalanga Provincial Government in Nelspruit in the yard of the Parliament Building. The topic was “Towards Celebrating 10 Years of our Freedom and Democracy.” Representatives of all religions in South Africa took part in the multi-faith prayers and/or performance of cleansing rituals: Hindu, Bahai, Zionist, Apostolic, Islam, Christian Churches and African Traditional Religion; more than 100 Traditional Leaders and Traditional Healers were present.

I took the chance to get into contact with one traditional healer, a middle aged women from Eastern Cape Province who spoke English fluently. I asked her directly: “If a man comes to you who is HIV positive, do you advise him to sleep with a virgin / a child in order that he will be cleansed?” Her answer came quickly: “Yes, I do, but I always advise him to use a condom.”

When I heard the answer of the traditional healer, I replied with a bitter loughter: “I do not believe that your client uses a condome when he is abusing a child. And if he is doing so, do you know what this means to the child?” She said: “No.”

“Then I will tell you the results for the abused child. Firstly, the child may be infected with HIV and have a short life only. Secondly, I know about the inner wounds the child will definitely get, because in Germany I counselled abused women. They told me about their torn emotional feelings throughout their whole adult life whenever they had contact with a man (inspite of their long therapy): At the same time they had experienced happiness and sadness, being attracted by him and having great fear to get near to him, feeling accepted and rejected by him, and were haunted by many more ambivalent feelings. If they want to sleep with their husband, they see the former abuser, and they can never feel relaxed. They do not become pregnant even if they want to have a child.”

And I added: “Do you want this to happen to your own child?” Her answer came quickly again: “No, not to my child!”

I became emotional, I felt tears in my eyes and I expressed it: “I nearly cry.” “Don’t cry!”, she answered cool.

I became rather angry: “You do not want it for your child, but what about the hundreds or thousands of children in South Africa which are abused by HIV positive men, and their lives are ruined! It will ruin your nation at the same time, if there are many many physically and psychologically sick children.”

She still listened but she had no answer. I went on by raising my hand to heaven: “I ask you in the name of the Living God not to go on with this practice”. She surprisingly added: “and in the name of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.” I continued: “Please go to all the traditional healers who are with you here. I can not talk to them, because they do not understand English. I tried in vain to get into contact with them. Please pass my message on to them.”

When I told my experience to members of the Lutheran congregations, they were always surprised or shocked that the traditional healer admitted openly that she encourages her male clients to sleep with a child. Later on, I was informed that many traditional healers denounce this practise. I learned that traditional healers admit that they cannot heal the AIDS disease, but through their knowledge of certain herbs which they offered to the patients they were able to boost their immune system considerably.

I don’t want to generalize my singular experience, but I have realized that the conscience of the Christians and of the traditional healer works in a very different way according to their different spiritual or traditional backgrounds.


In reflecting this event, I am convinced that we cannot blame the traditional healers for such inhuman advice they give to men who want to be healed. We rather have to understand that it is not a question of ethics, but of religion we deal with. The question is: how can a person be cleansed?

According to traditional African religion (e.g. in Venda/Limpopo Province) in heavy national catastrophies the usual sacrificies would not suffice. A child or a virgin under the age of puberty was offered by the nanga to reconcile the ancestors and to avert damage from the community. Before the children have taken the initiation rites they have not received full humanity. As they have not been sexually active, they are still in a status of purity which can be accorded to an unclean person in a cleansing ritual.

For us as Christians it is of vital importance that Jesus has said in Matthew 19,14:

Let the little children come to me, and don’t prevent them.

For of such is the Kingdom of Heaven. Through Jesus the children have the same status before God as any adult person who trusts in God like a child.

Beware that you don’t look down upon a single one of these little children. For I tell you that in heaven their angels have constant access to my Father. (Matthew 18,10)

Therefore anyone who humbles himself as this little child, is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven; and any of you who welcomes a little child like this because you are mine (in my name), is welcoming me and caring for me. But if any of you causes one of these little ones who trust in me to lose his faith, it would be better for you to have a rock tied to your neck and be thrown into the sea. (Matthew 18, 4–6)

Jesus Christ protects the children by identifying himself with them. Whoever abuses a child hurts and disregards Jesus who suffers with the child. Jesus has suffered for our iniquities and given his life into death once and for all. His sacrifice is fully sufficient. No human being—least a child—should be offered or misused for cleansing another person. For the blood of Jesus his son cleanses us from every sin (I John 1,7b).

ONLY Jesus Christ is the Saviour and Healer, who provides us with a new nature according to the image of God—see e.g. Ephesians 4, 22–24:

Put off your old nature which belongs to your former way of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in spirit and mind, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

No other person needs to be abused for the sake of being cleansed from HIV and healed from AIDS.


Old African traditions may become a trap under the conditions of modern deregulated living (according to Bishop Ph. Robinson, ELC Botswana).

  1. The traditional polygamist attitude is no longer kept within socially controlled roles. A proverb in Botswana says: We build no fences around our men. That means: Men are permitted to have sexual relationships with different women outside their own marriage. Young men have to prove that they are men even in promiscuous sexual relations. Under present conditions this promiscuous behaviour is a high risk to contract and to spread the HIVirus.

  2. Young unmarried women have to prove that they are fertile and can bear children, and they are honoured by society when they have given birth, even when the child is an illegitimate one and the mother is still a schoolgoing girl. Through changing sexual partners the risk is high to become infected with HIV, and to pass it on to the child.

  3. The old African tradition had many positive rules which helped to preserve the family and the clan. In one Lutheran parish in Leboa/Botlokwa I experienced that elderly women would examine young women before they became married whether they were still virgins.They would make this fact public by praising their virginity.

    According to the old African tradition there were different tabus which did not permit married men to have sexual intercourse with their wives as long as these were pregnant and breast-feeding. This tabu saved the mother from becoming pregnant too quickly.

    Under the modern conditions of living, however, this trait turns into a negative one and can lead married men to seek sexual satisfaction outside marriage. The same may happen after the wife has passed the menopause.

    Christian faith opens a way towards an abstinent life before marriage, and towards a new fidelity in marriage.

  4. According to the old tradition a woman has a minor status in relation to the husband. She has to follow the sexual demands of the man. In order to open her heart to the husband and to express her own feelings both need an open attitude of mutual trust and respect. A training in communication may help to express themselves as partners in love.

    Christian love encourages respect of men for women and children and overcomes fear of open communication between husband and wife.

  5. In cases of HIV infection of one partner, it is essential that the infected partner discloses himself to his spouse, and the other partner will try to accept him and, if necessary, they forgive each other. In any case the partner should use a condome. If this request is denied, both should agree to seek counselling.

    As Christians both will repent and receive God’s forgiveness and cleansing through Holy Communion and lead a life of mutual trust.

  6. Both need an HIV test to know their status. Only when they can rely on clear facts, mistrust and accusations can gradually be overcome. Christians have the chance to start a new life clothing ourselves with this new nature (Ephesians 3, 23–24). Cleansing rituals are helpful if they reflect a changed person.

    The daily sanctification of our own lives is the appropriate process of cleansing and healing so much looked after in HIV infected areas.

    All the other traditional ways and means of cleansing will lead into death of a whole generation of children and youth, if not altered to the wellbeing of the coming generation.

2 Responses to “AIDS & Cultural Background”

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