The G8 should pay attention to Bonga

Posted: Jul 07, 2005 12:00 AM

LOSKUP, KWAZULU-NATAL, South Africa -- At 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. But thousands of miles south, a smaller concert in late June went unnoticed.
Here in a small village four hours east of Johannesburg, eight boys and girls ages 13 to 18 stood in a cold, dimly-lit room and 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 100 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 over 12 million African children have been orphaned because of AIDS.

 Some of those times, 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 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 here along the almost-dry Tugela River are doing well, and 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 told them of predictions that "90 percent of you will be dead by the age of 30."

 Smith put his arm around one girl and said, "We're going to pretend that she's HIV-positive." He then 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.

 That was different from what the teens hear at the nearby government medical clinic, which offers free condoms. But Smith insisted, "The Bible says sex with the person you marry is the only protected sex."

 The teens were silent. 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, 18, wasn't buying. "Black people are not the same as white people," he said. "Black people do not abstain." 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."

 Bonga insisted: "We have sex before marriage." Smith shot back, "But Bonga can get AIDS and die."

 The future of Africa depends more on the decision of Bonga than the decision of the G8 heads of state.