Taking pride in purity

"Taking pride in purity" Continued...

Issue: "GOP downfall," Nov. 18, 2006

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."


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