KAMPALA- It's Thursday afternoon and early-season rains have come. Students at London College should be indoors and in class but instead several thousand are outside filling the campus with chants and cheers, dancing to a live performance by reggae gospel artist Papa San.
Astounding Westerners committed to condom distribution, the students have come to celebrate abstinence before marriage and faithfulness within marriage-a part of Uganda's AIDS treatment success more often up for ridicule than for applause and break-dancing. It's rarely the sort of cause to draw a weekday crowd-but as speakers step to the microphone and the band plays on, even principal K.L.S. Mukiibi at one point joins in the dancing, crying "Abstinence Now!"
Participation by the principal of one of Uganda's largest and most prestigious secondary schools was "a miracle" for organizer Martin Ssempa, a Kampala pastor who heads Uganda's Global Alliance for Prevention, or GAP. Two years ago at London College (actually a high school), students attended what they thought was an abstinence rally only to be shown skits featuring a cartoon character named Kikosi. Kikosi was a condom. And the event-sponsored by U.S. condom supplier Population Services International (PSI) and funded by the U.S. government-had little to do with teaching teenagers to abstain from sex and more to do with teaching so-called safe sex ("Abstaining from abstinence," April 30, 2005).
Students who competed to win a prize at the event were awarded a T-shirt that read, "Protect the Condom." Some students complained. Ssempa, whose focus is promoting sexual purity as a way to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS among students, realized PSI had taken "a warmed-over condom character and rebaptized it as an abstinence program just because the funding was available."
The strategy was classic during the first round of funding under President George Bush's emergency plan to prevent AIDS, a plan that has boosted by 67 percent U.S. aid to Africa on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. This year a stipulation that one-third of spending on prevention go to abstinence-until-marriage programs becomes law. PSI and other lead public-health providers in Uganda, in a gold-rush frenzy for the new money, retooled their images to win abstinence grants, yet declined to work with or subcontract to groups in Uganda already doing abstinence-based education.
Along with the students, Ssempa complained, too, and finally was heard last year by key U.S. lawmakers. He wound up testifying before Congress on abuses he witnessed in what he believes is a condom makers' racket. "Western manufacturers are the ones making money off condoms; Ugandans don't make money promoting condoms," he said.
As one result, PSI is no longer fronting abstinence programs in Kampala, and GAP within the last year secured $40,000 in U.S. abstinence-education money. That's a small sum compared to the $12 million PSI received in the first round of funding, but it's enough for Ssempa to publish a newspaper promoting abstinence. He distributes the paper on Kampala's high-school and university campuses. And at this year's London College event, rally-goers received T-shirts saying, "Abstinence Pride." The slogan is part of a new strategy to fight what Ssempa calls the "abstinence stigma" Ugandans face from the West. Abstinence workers have played defense too long, he says, and it's time to run offense.
"Abstinence stigma is a condescending attitude on the part of some, largely Western media and Western activists who come in and have told us abstinence doesn't work. They ridicule abstinence education and being-faithful programs. They ridicule virgins. They paint a picture of those who abstain as backward, religious fanatics, and this is creating such a hostile culture that if you are a young person who has been abstaining, some of your friends begin to discriminate and isolate you," Ssempa told WORLD. "But we know it's worked for us."
With placards saying "Stop AIDS . . . fight abstinence stigma!" GAP launched a 30-day campaign late last month to culminate on World AIDS Day, Dec. 1. Thousands attended a kick-off march downtown, supported by private donors and keynoted with a four-day concert tour by Papa San-whose popularity on the "world music" scene is well established in Africa and the Caribbean.
At the closing concert, held at an outdoor stadium on Kampala's largest campus, Makarere University, Papa San drew 30,000 on Oct. 29. For over three hours, the performer laced jam sessions with his testimony, along with remarks from Manhattan pastor Tom Mahairas, who directs the New York-based urban youth ministry CitiVision and is a former drug user.
When Papa San became a Christian six years ago, he too dropped the sex-and-drugs culture but kept his reggae roots, writing lyrics to reflect his new faith and recording alongside gospel artists Kirk Franklin and Cece Winans. He told WORLD he performed in Kampala nine years ago and dreamed of returning to the capital with new music and a new message, but never dreamed of the response. Recent Ministry of Health figures indicate that 60 percent of Ugandans ages 15-24 have not had sex-a figure backed by the popularity of Papa San at Makarere and the unpopularity of Kikosi. U.S. AIDS activist Billy Schneider said, "One day Uganda might give back to Americans what we are trying to give to you. America is not abstaining." Schneider, a former heroin addict who has lived with AIDS for nearly 25 years and as a Christian for over 20, was in Africa for the first time to speak on God, AIDS, and abstinence.
Ssempa's own involvement with the cause is both personal and public-minded. In 1987 near the beginning of Africa's AIDS epidemic, Ssempa's niece Mary died of the disease. By 1994 he had lost his sister Florence and brother Fred to AIDS. "They left me orphans to take care of, and I loved them very deeply," he said.
The deaths brought on a spiritual crisis for Ssempa, himself promiscuous, he says, with one child out of wedlock already and "on my way to death." Then he met a young woman who was "into abstinence." He agreed to attend a small-group meeting with her. "These were intelligent, good-looking people going to the best schools in the country. I thought they'd be old women. They actually loved God and they were abstaining. That shocked me. I kept going back and I got convicted about my clubbing lifestyle and my promiscuity. I thought I was going to die. These people had purpose in life. Then I made a commitment to Christ."
Ssempa, convicted about the need for spiritual and behavioral change to combat AIDS, joined church groups that performed dramas about AIDS, efforts eventually combined under the nationwide campaign of first lady Janet Museveni. That was before anyone coined the term "ABC," which has come to stand for Uganda's approach to AIDS-Abstain, Be faithful, use Condoms. It was also before Uganda's HIV/AIDS prevalence rate fell from over 30 percent to about 7 percent.
The campaign was very straightforward then, according to Ssempa: "The culture was saying, 'What's the problem?' The problem was promiscuity. 'What's the solution?' Stop it. 'Single?' Abstain. 'Married?' Be faithful. It wasn't 'ABC'; it was just that." When outside groups began introducing campaigns that featured condoms, "it was a very quiet thing. Now people like to say that condoms were a major feature of our strategy. Those are the people reinventing history."
Ssempa isn't afraid to do battle with groups who oppose his strategy: Human Rights Watch, Family Planning Association of Uganda, UNFPA, and others. And they return the favor. Human Rights Watch devoted a full section to Ssempa and "his charismatic brand of fundamentalist Christianity" in a March 2005 report titled, "The Less They Know, the Better: Abstinence-Only HIV/AIDS Programs in Uganda."
With World AIDS Day and Ssempa's own AIDS advocacy nearing the 20-year mark, he is encouraged by "the beginning of a balance" between behavior intervention and condom intervention. "From the 1980s to early '90s we were using local resources to fight HIV/AIDS, then money comes in the mid-'90s with an agenda, an agenda heavily leaning towards condoms. So while most of the population was supportive of abstinence, there was a great shift in applications." With the Bush administration's emergency plan and its new money, he said, "you begin to see a change. But it's a bitter war."