It is quite a shame that the church is somewhat contributing to the spread of the HIV virus on the continent of Africa. Church leaders, especially of the Catholic variety, have always maintained that the use of contraceptives – including condoms – is against the will of God. Given Africans’ religiosity and respect for these men of God, many of them have ended up not using any form of protection or contraceptives while having sex. The result has been the very high fertility and HIV infection rates on the continent.
African governments have been fighting the AIDS scourge with very costly campaigns while turning a deaf year to the churches.Because in most cases the churches are the ones that provide much needed public goods and social services, they’ve come to have a stronger grip on the people’s minds and hearts than the government. It is therefore a no brainer that even on the life and death issue of condom use they tend to listen more to the men of God than to Caesar.
This should not be the case. To echo Wole Soyinka, “Even in a purely theocratic state, there comes a point – surely – at which the state must restrict clerical interference in clearly scientific matters, most especially where human well being and survival are at issue.” Although the percentage of those infected because of their religious persuasions may be small, the fact is that their infection is preventable. It is because of this that governments should step in and rid pulpits of this madness. Church leaders should stop deluding themselves that their call for abstinence is in God’s people’s interest.The truth is that God’s people will always have sex and therefore need ways to control their fertility and protect themselves against terrible sexually transmitted diseases.
This does not mean that the churches should stop preaching about chastity and sexual purity. On the contrary, I say they should redouble their effort. But they should also be flexible on contraceptives, including condoms, for the safety of the many of their flock who fall to the temptations of the flesh.
The continent’s men of God should take time off next time they are in Rome, London or Texas – from where they get their cue – to inquire about the rates of condom use and fertility of their fellow believers in these places.
The other day I came across some stats that got me thinking. It is apparent that at the current rate of population growth, Africa’s population will double in the next half century (Even after having discounted for malaria and – according to the Economist – the over-estimated AIDS figures). This can either be a blessing or a curse.
It could be a blessing due to the fact the non-viability of some African states is because they are too sparsely populated and do not have big enough internal markets to support robust economies or generate enough revenue in terms of taxes to pay for effective government. Therefore, a big population would bring more good than harm. I am not saying that the solution to Africa’s poverty and lack of development is a higher population growth; I am just making the observation that populous Ethiopia is more viable as a sovereign state than huge but thinly populated Chad or Niger.
The negative effects, however, are more real and immediate. As it stands, Africa cannot feed its entire population – hence its current reliance on food imports and relief to meet the balance. Furthermore, due to rather dismal economic performance over the last four decades, the population growth rate has far outstripped economic growth. As a consequence, Africa is the only region in the world where per capita incomes have declined since the seventies. The ideal solution to this problem would be to simply increase the rate of economic growth to surpass that of population, but this cannot just be made possible with a magic wand. It will take time.
The situation therefore calls for a clear and well formulated population policy. If Africa is to take off economically and improve its deplorable average living standards, it has to arrest the high rate of population growth (continental average fertility is more than 5 children per woman, the world average is below 3). This need not be some China-like thing, I believe that with the right incentives to families and insistence on longer and better education of girls the situation can be changed. Studies have shown that, on average, better educated women tend to have fewer, healthier and better educated children.
In the future though, with proper planning, I think it is in the continent’s best interest to have a big population. By some estimates, Africa can support upwards of 1.5 billion people with its 28% arable land (China has 13%). A big and economically vibrant population will not only be invaluable in reducing the continent’s over-reliance on foreign trade (internal trade accounts for paltry 10%) but also for strategic security purposes.