Cover Story

The other venue

Stars from Bono to Rick Warren are throwing the spotlight on millions of HIV-related deaths. But the frontier is not onstage, it's in African villages where small groups are saving lives and finding enthusiastic support for their ministry evangelism

Issue: "Africa: The new frontier," July 16, 2005

First in a series by Marvin & Susan Olasky in Namibia, Zambia, and South Africa

Hundreds of millions watched on television the July 2 Live8 concerts. U2, Sting, Pink Floyd, REM, Elton John, Paul McCartney and others all sang their hearts out, as scheduled, for African debt relief (see "Whose jubilee?", June 25). • Thousands of miles south, a smaller concert went unnoticed. In late June in the village of Loskop four hours east of Johannesburg, eight boys and girls ages 13 to 18, standing in a circle in a cold, dimly lit room, sang lines from a Ladysmith Black Mombazo song now popular across South Africa: "AIDS killed my father, AIDS killed my mother, AIDS is killing Africa." One singer ran his finger across his throat. Others stomped their feet on the cement floor. Then Rob Smith, the 47-year-old, wispy-bearded head of the Agathos Foundation-agathos is Greek for "good"-told the eight about the "need to talk about sex. We need to talk about it openly so we can see what Jesus says about sex and about our bodies. Then we relate that to the AIDS crisis."

The crisis is real. Fewer than one out of a hundred U.S. adults is HIV-positive, but at least one out of five adults in South Africa is, and the macabre stat may soon be one out of two and heading even higher. Epidemics historically have tended to kill the very young and the very old, but AIDS is different: Those ages 20 to 40 are most affected, which means that so far more than 12 million African children have been orphaned because of AIDS.

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Sometimes grandparents are able to care for those kids; sometimes 12-year-olds care for their younger siblings; sometimes no one cares. African orphans who survive are also hard hit in other ways. UNICEF reports that two-thirds of rural orphans and one-third of urban ones are not enrolled in school. The World Bank reports high levels of malnutrition, with half of South Africa's children stuck with stunted growth. Many children survive by working long hours, sometimes in prostitution.

But the 32 orphans on the dusty Agathos property in Loskop along the almost-dry Tugela River are doing well, and Mr. Smith last month was trying to teach them not to throw their lives away. Wearing a T-shirt showing a tree planted by streams of water, he read to them the Ten Commandments, emphasizing "Do not commit adultery" and "Do not steal," and told them of predictions that "90 percent of you will be dead by the age of 30."

Mr. Smith put his arm around one girl, said, "We're going to pretend that she's HIV-positive," and asked her to speak to three others. Giggling, she complied. Those three then spoke to the others. "That is how AIDS spreads," he said, and contrasted that multiplication with Christ's emphasis on sex only within marriage to one other person. He then pushed for feedback: "Tell me how AIDS gets spread."

Bonga, at 18 the oldest teen present, made a comment in Zulu that set all the children laughing. No one would translate for Mr. Smith, who grew up in South Africa and knows some Zulu but not this-we find out the next day that Bonga was trash-talking about oral sex-so he pushed on: "How many of you have heard at school or at the clinic that you must have protected sex?"

They all knew what he meant. A sign on the door of the nearby medical clinic offers free condoms, and that day representatives of an international organization had shown up in their Land Rover to make sure their doctrine was being taught. But Mr. Smith insisted, "The Bible says sex with the person you marry is the only protected sex. . . . If we have sex with someone who's not our wife or our husband, we're stealing from someone-and if you steal from another, chapter four of First Thessalonians says the Lord is the avenger, and He will avenge all things."

The teens were silent. Mr. Smith pressed his point: "We prevent getting AIDS by abstaining from sex until we are married. God designed sex for marriage. . . . Those who are married know that sex is best when it's with one person for the rest of your life. God's design is always best for us. Right now, young men are sleeping with three, four, five girlfriends. That's why we have all these funerals."

Bonga wasn't buying. "Black people are not the same as white people," he said. "Black people do not abstain." Mr. Smith responded, "I understand that the Zulu people like to say they do things differently. But this is not about what Rob thinks, nor about what the white man thinks. This is about what God thinks. If you reject this you're not rejecting man, but God."

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