AIDS and HIV continue to be taboo subjects because sex is still a taboo subject in many circles. Parents seldom open up to their children about what they need to know. Instead of finding factual information to discuss, children and even adults commonly sift through a confusing mixed bag of facts, figures and suggestions outside of the home. In some cases, there is no information at all and children are expected to learn about these things on their own.
What if religious leaders joined in? Does the topic of HIV belong in the mosque? Is it possible for issues like sex and sexually transmitted diseases to be discussed in a community setting without fanning the flames of controversy?
Fanta Ongoiba feels that yes, mosques and churches are in fact the perfect place to have the AIDS talk. In early October, Ongoiba, along with five other Muslim women, were honored at the Canadian Council of Muslim Womens Women Who Inspire Awards in her efforts to educate people about HIV transmission and infection, and reduce the stigma in the community.
Ongoiba grew up in Mali in Western Africa to a Muslim family, within a country that was 98 percent Muslim. She remembers that no one in Africa spoke of AIDS. She didnt even know what AIDS was until she moved to Canada in 1985 and began to hear details of the AIDS crisis in Africa. As a student in Canada, Ongoiba saw TV programs that described Africa as being devastated by the disease. This didnt sit too well with hera young student who loved people and had as deep desire to be active in her community.
I thought okay; Im from Mali and before I had come here I had never heard about AIDS. I thought what is that? Is it in my country or is it not in my country? I started questioning myself.
In Toronto, Ongoiba works with Africans in Partnership Against AIDS (APAA), a nonprofit organization that works to increase HIV/AIDS awareness among African Caribbean and black communities in the Greater Toronto Area. The group gives support to people with the disease, presents harm-reduction workshops, volunteer training, community development and outreach. She is a foot soldier helping to bridge the divide between religious leaders and AIDS awareness. She helps to smooth that relationship and helps pave the road to open and honest discourse.
According to Ongoiba, religion plays a crucial role in the effort. She goes to mosques to deliver the message and recruit trainers. Its important to involve religious leaders, Christian or Muslim, because they see much more of the community members, she says. Muslims pray five times a day, and Fridays Ongoiba says the mosque is full from the bottom-up. So imams (clerics) can use that opportunity to introduce HIV/AIDS education. She says people are more likely to listen to imams and trust his or her religious leader.
In the beginning, the program was met with skepticism. One time Ongoiba was called a troublemaker for bringing this worldly topic to a sacred place of worship; but such experiences have little effect on her resolve.
Im patient and most of the time quiet. I will take my time; I will observe and analyze before acting. So when I act I cannot go back, I have to go ahead and fight the fight that I started, she says. When one of the imams said you are a troublemaker, you are a rebel [I replied] Im not a rebel, but if you call me a troublemaker I will accept that. Its reality Im telling you because you cannot tell me Muslim people dont have sex. If they dont have sex how are they having children?
The veil is slowly but surely lifting on this controversial topic. The challenge now lies within communities that want to start the process. Says Ongoiba, they have to call us; the challenge is the people who want to start the work. Its a train-the-trainer type of program.
APAA has certain tactics they use to involve imams and pastors in the fight against HIV. They are prepped for holding their own workshops and talks. I talked to one imam and he was convinced by the idea; he was really receptive and he recruited other imams and other congregation participants and sent an invitation to more than 200 people. That was amazing.
APAAs main geographic focus is Toronto but from time to time Ongoiba and others attend conferences in Africa or Mali to give speeches or to train. In Mali, AIDS awareness is improving, too, although the end is not yet in sight. Ongoibas cousin gives her updates now and then from her homeland. Local media could still give more attention to the topic, but at least now even in Mali the conversation has made its way to mosques.Speakers have finally found a receptive audience.
In Mali they are doing well, she says. I can say they are more advanced than here because everybody is taking care of it; its everybodys issue and its everybodys cause to save peoples lives through education. The imams are very well organized and awareness is spreading.
**Republished on Septembver 16th, 2014**
AIDS education begins in the mosque for this awareness advocate