Africa's True Love Waits supporters encouraged by Bush

ENTEBBE, Uganda -- Baptists working with the True Love Waits program in East Africa are encouraged following President George W. Bush's commitment to U.S. support of abstinence-based programs in the war on AIDS.

Such programs headed the president's list as he outlined a strategy for battling the spread of the AIDS virus in Africa and around the world.

"We will work with governments and private groups and faith-based organizations to put in place a comprehensive system to prevent, to diagnose and to treat AIDS," Bush told an audience of about 100 during his visit to Uganda July 11 as part of a five-country visit to Africa. "We will support abstinence-based education for young people in schools and churches and community centers."

Bush's comments were made following a visit to a TASO (The Aids Support Organization) clinic in Entebbe, less than 10 minutes from the airport where his plane landed. Noting the success of Uganda's triple emphasis on abstinence, marital fidelity and the use of condoms, Bush commended the country as a model for AIDS treatment across the continent. More than 30 million people in Africa live with the AIDS virus, but in Uganda the infection rate of the disease -- how fast it is spreading to others -- has fallen from 30 percent to 5 percent since the early 1990s.

Andrew Mwenge, senior pastor of Kampala Baptist Church in Kampala, Uganda, and longtime volunteer with True Love Waits, believes the president's comments will increase the credibility of True Love Waits' focus on abstinence. Although True Love Waits has been in Uganda since 1994, Mwenge feels the program has often been sidelined by agencies.

"The money is here, but the problem is sometimes getting to it," Mwenge said. "I think we will have a better hearing. This has brought it to the forefront."

Mwenge and his staff already have been at work on proposals to fund True Love Waits in its next phase, taking the message of abstinence until marriage to teacher-training colleges.

"We will be dealing with the people who deal directly with young people," Mwenge said.

He said he hopes to be able to visit two to three teacher-training colleges each month, presenting True Love Waits to the entire college, then providing further training to a few students within the college who are committed to abstinence.

In neighboring Kenya, staff at the Baptist AIDS Response Agency -- a joint effort between the Baptist Convention of Kenya and the International Mission Board's Baptist Mission of Kenya -- were equally encouraged by the president's support.

Debby Marshall, strategy consultant for AIDS work in Kenya, noted that the True Love Waits program has faced challenges in obtaining funding because of its insistence on abstinence, rather than the use of condoms. Marshall said she hopes the president's support of abstinence-based programs will ease some of this difficulty.

"I'm very hopeful," Marshall said. "It's encouraging because abstinence is biblically based, and the president is supporting something from a biblical perspective, not a secular perspective."

While skeptics have charged that abstinence is not important in the war on AIDS, Mwenge disagrees. Instead, he sees abstinence as a critical component in the decline of the AIDS infection rate in the last dozen years.

"The problem was that people had gotten used to unplanned sex," said Mwenge, referring to conditions in Uganda a decade ago. "Whether it was in the right relationships or the wrong ones, it was too casual. An abstinence message causes people to think deliberately, rather than causally about sex.

"Where condoms are promoted without an emphasis on abstinence it is useless," Mwenge said.

Skeptics or no, True Love Waits clubs in Kenya are "growing like wildfire," with 30 clubs currently active, Marshall reported.

"Kids are realizing that they can make their own choices, and see the benefits of those choices," she said.