Jonathan Clayton: John Paul’s 1990 speech ‘sentenced millions to die’

Roundup: Talking About History




[Jonathan Clayton is The Times’s Africa correspondent.]

On a balmy late afternoon in September 1990, John Paul II visited the small town of Mwanza, in northern Tanzania, and gave a speech that many believe set the tone for the Aids crisis in Africa.

Battered by conflicts and poverty, those inside the packed church and the huge crowds gathered outside hung on to every word. In particular, the Pope could give answers to this strange “slimming” disease that had seemingly come from nowhere to destroy entire communities. Some in the villages even whispered that it came from God himself as a punishment for past sins.

Tanzania, Uganda and the other countries surrounding Lake Victoria were then at the epicentre of HIV/ Aids, which was beginning its race down Africa’s highways to devastate every corner of the continent. Some nearby villages consisted only of the very old and very young while rows and rows of wooden crosses marked the graves of others.

The Pope was unequivocal. He told his audience that condoms, then internationally accepted as the only real way to curtail the spread of the disease, especially in the developing world, were a sin in any circumstances. He lauded family values and praised fidelity and abstinence as the only true ways to combat the disease – seemingly ignorant of many traditional practices such as wives marrying the brothers of deceased husbands, a form of security in countries with no social services.

Aids activists, including many local African Catholics, were appalled. In that one afternoon, they said, the Vatican destroyed more than a decade of patient campaigning. Progress had been painfully slow but awareness campaigns – with condom use the crucial component – were showing signs of taking effect. Age-old customs and habits were changing.

For many, the Pope that day sentenced millions of Africans to death. Unabashed, he repeated the same message time and again as he moved on to neighbouring Rwanda and Burundi, countries then suffering an even higher HIV infection rate...




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