South Africa has the largest and most high profile HIV epidemic in the world. This is the story of a leader in a rural town in South Africa who, in the face of this devastation, created a program that inspired others to serve their communities.
Masangane was founded in 2002, and is named for the Xhosa word for “embrace.” Together with a group of volunteers from various Moravian congregations, the late Rev. Mgcoyi, a retired school principal and Moravian pastor, launched a home-based orphan care project in a rural town on the Eastern Cape of South Africa called Matatiele; population 6,000.
After hearing about life-saving HIV and AIDS medications, Rev. Mgcoyi and the other volunteers wrote numerous letters to Lutheran and Moravian partner congregations and the Evangelical Association of Mission and Churches (EMS) in Southwest Germany. The response from Germany was overwhelmingly positive and, in June 2002, a treatment fund was established.
Doctors Without Borders and Treatment Action Campaign staff monitored and supervised Masangane’s distribution of antiretroviral (ARV) medication. At that time, despite the South African government adopting an ARV program in 2003, Masangane was the only source of free ARVs in the predominantly poor rural population.
The success was phenomenal. Masangane’s continuum of care was successful because they reached the very ill and moved them quickly onto ARVs and because they used an effective treatment literacy program developed by Doctors Without Borders. Adherence to the ARVs was very good. The routine of taking medication was linked to a daily bible reading ritual, and strong support groups gave crucial hope and encouragement. These program elements and successes resulted in many patients recovering in three to six months.
In 2005, Vesper Society began supporting the Masangane program as an integrated HIV/AIDS program where orphans were cared for, sick parents were given medical treatment, and treatment education workshops were held in communities. As one workshop participant said, “The disease that is killing our people is not AIDS, it is stigma.”
That same year, the Moravian Church lost Rev. Mgcoyi, an outstanding leader who challenged this stigma and who said, “If people can be saved from dying of AIDS, then the Church must ACT.” He offered a Christian embrace to those with HIV and drew them into a well-controlled bio-medical treatment program. Masangane project advisor, Rev. Renate Cochrane wrote a moving tribute to Rev. Mgcoyi. Read it here.
Vesper Society funding for Masangane helped to build prefabricated buildings in two rural communities, and, in 2010 and 2011, Masangane engaged in a strategic planning process to prepare for 2012, when support from Vesper Society would phase out.
Now South Africa has the largest antiretroviral (ARV) treatment program in the world, largely financed by its domestic resources. The New York Times reports that in 2009, 490 clinics gave out ARVs; now there are 3,540 that provide ARV treatment. Despite the progress, an estimated 6.1 million people are living with HIV in South Africa, a country of 51 million.
Of all the Christian denominations, only the Moravians of the Masangane program are known to have provided ARVs. This work led to a case study on the potential role of faith-based organizations in responding to the HIV epidemic.
Vesper Society funded the African Religious Health Assets Program (ARHAP) research project in 2006 to study the Masangane program. It was led by the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Cape Town and the Interfaith Health Program at Emory University. The Masangane evaluation highlighted its clients’ appreciation of the way in which their belief system was integrated into the continuum of treatment care and support, and recommended that the public health system integrate these approaches into current practice. This report was recognized by the World Health Organization, which had funded a similar study on religious health assets in Zambia and Lesotho.
After a two-year hiatus, ARHAP re-launched in 2012 as the International Religious Health Assets Program. The coordinating hub is located at the School of Public Health and Family Medicine at the University of Cape Town. You can access an array of publications on their new website. Read more.
Here, we also pay tribute to an incredible woman, Zoliswa Magwentshu, who played a critical role in Masangane and who always said, “Never give up hope!” She passed away in 2010, and we will always hold her in our hearts. You can read more about Zoliswa here.