TANZANIA: Rev Amin Sandewa, "I have faced stigma before but now I am fighting it"

Photo: Waweru Mugo/IRIN
"This was a bitter pill to swallow"
Nairobi, 13 January 2009 (PlusNews) - Reverend Amin Sandewa of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania was the chaplain of a university when he discovered his HIV positive status nine years ago. He told IRIN/PlusNews about the rejection and discrimination he experienced from the church and his parishioners before he found a new calling - evangelising on HIV and AIDS.

“My wife had been sick on and off with coughing and a recurring fever. So when our last-born daughter died in January 1999, only a few months after birth, I suspected all was not well.

“There was something in [my wife's] face - she appeared disturbed and depressed and I felt she was struggling with something deep within. We talked it over and I agreed to go for a HIV check.

“I was Chaplain of Sokoine University of Agriculture in Morogoro [in north-eastern Tanzania]. Fearing the reaction of locals and the faithful, I travelled 200km away to Muhimbili Medical Hospital for VCT (voluntary counselling and HIV testing). The results came back HIV positive.

“I delivered the news to my wife. She was like, 'Okay, I am HIV positive too. I tested during pregnancy on an ante-natal clinic visit last year. I have been thinking how best to tell you'.

“This was a bitter pill to swallow. Questions ran through my mind: 'I am a pastor, who should I tell this to? Do I disclose to my bishop, fellow pastors, my parents or congregation?'

“We chose to keep quiet. Unfortunately, people started talking: 'Pastor ana ukimwi [Pastor has AIDS), his child has died and can’t you see the wife is sick?'.

“I soldiered on with church functions - preaching, counselling and presiding over weddings, but it was not easy; I was depressed and you could read it in me. One of the lowest moments was after a woman came up to me and boldly inquired, 'Have you repented? I heard you have HIV.'

“Things changed drastically following my wife’s death in July 1999. Married for nine years, the responsibility of raising the family now lay squarely on me.

“After burying her, I had my two daughters tested for HIV, just to be sure. The eldest (now 17) was okay but the other one born in 1994 turned out HIV positive.

“My contract as chaplain was due to end in 2000 and it required I reapply. The Christian Council of Tanzania said a big 'no' to my request. I was told to hand over and return to my home diocese of Pare. Coming so soon after my wife’s burial, the rebuttal sounded suspicious and I learnt the transfer was decided upon owing to my HIV status.

"I felt bitter and abandoned; this was the most difficult time of my life.
While a few Christians sympathised, others labelled me a sinner that deserved to go.

“Relocation to Pare in 2001 was not sweet. The diocesan bishop was very blunt: 'Many people know you are HIV positive, do you think there is any parish willing to take you in? Being HIV positive means you require expensive medication, which parish is ready to foot the bills? And parish work is very tedious, do you think you will manage in your condition?'

“I was not assigned duties. This translated to no pay and none in the church cared how my family and I survived. I retreated to my rural home in Kilimanjaro and tried farming. The same year, my second born died from AIDS-related illness.

“Life changed when in 2004, I attended a meeting organised by ANARELA (Africa Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV and AIDS). I disclosed my HIV status to a [church] official and went public about it.

“With some religious leaders infected or affected by HIV, we launched Tanzania NARELA. I am its national coordinator.

“When I tested positive nine years ago, a doctor said I needed TZS7 million (US$5,300) for treatment. With no such money, I waited to face death any time. The story is different now; with free ante-retroviral treatment, one can live longer. My immunity level is still high and I haven’t enrolled for ARVs yet.


Theme (s): HIV/AIDS (PlusNews),

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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