Fighting HIV and Strengthening Marriages
February 14, 2008, —By Kai T. Hill
As visitors settle into the living area of Agnes and Waswa Vincent's one-story home, the couple is instantly hospitable. They speak in gentle tones and share tender glances, noticeable signs of their renewed commitment to each other.
A few years ago, their marriage was at risk.
Waswa agreed to marry Agnes, 28, largely because she wanted to take holy Communion on Sunday. They were both middle-income health workers in their small community on the outskirts of Masaka, Uganda, and maintained separate, independent lifestyles. Waswa, 31, continued hanging out late with friends, going to clubs and drinking.
"Even after making my marriage vows, I still never thought that my wife had some important role to play in my life. I would never even tell her where I was going because I wanted her to get used to my way of life early enough, so I would leave the office and go meet my friends for booze and return after midnight," says Waswa.
It wasn't until the couple started participating in the Faithful House program in May 2006 that they saw a turnaround in their marriage. A workshop, sponsored by Catholic Relief Services, turned out to be a life-changing and lifesaving experience for both of them.
Boosting Communication and Fidelity
The Faithful House approach was developed by a committed group of Catholic Relief Services' valued partners — specifically Maternal Life International, based in Montana, and Maternal Life Uganda, an outstanding local resource who led the trainings. Part of a broader church effort to stem the spread of HIV, Faithful House includes a series of workshops that help couples improve their marriages using faith-based values, joint financial planning, and better communication and parenting. The program's ultimate aim is to boost fidelity.
According to the United Nations' 2006 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic, Uganda has nearly a million people living with HIV. The Masaka region is believed to be one of the first to suffer the effects of the HIV pandemic. The disease has proliferated among the poorest residents as well those who are financially stable.
The weeklong, 40-hour Faithful House program is carried out by local parishes and dioceses. It engages participants in activities to build healthy decision-making practices, and HIV awareness. Faithful House also encourages couples who are living together to get married.
Since completing the program, Agnes and Waswa find themselves reflecting daily on conversations and commitments they made during the workshops.
"When we attended the Faithful House workshop together, the topic on communication was widely covered," says Waswa. "I felt so embarrassed and thought I owed [Agnes] an apology. From that time, I changed my ways and now I inform her of all of my whereabouts because she is my wife."
Funded by the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Faithful House concept was started in 2005 and implemented in Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Nigeria. In Uganda, Faithful House workshops have been established in the dioceses of Masaka, Fort Portal and Kasana-Luweero and the archdioceses of Gulu, Mbarara and Kampala. In 2008, this project will help 72,996 people directly and 690,828 people indirectly.
Finding Real Love
In Gulu, reported as having the second-highest HIV prevalence rate in Uganda, the Faithful House workshops have also helped couples like Justin and Mary Grace.
Justin, 49, and his wife have three children of their own and take care of 14 more children whose families were lost to AIDS. The couple frequently holds hands and seems renewed in their faith and commitment. But Mary Grace confides that she used to harbor distrust when Justin would go on his many work-related trips.
Wed in 1983, the couple says they were raised with faith-based values. But when they took part in the Faithful House marriage workshops in the summer of 2007, they began strengthening their vows by improving communication at home. This, Mary Grace says, placed them on a path of forgiveness from the past.
"This workshop has indeed increased my [awareness] about HIV, but also my fear of leaving my children as orphans in the hands of my older mother since all of my brothers and sisters are already gone," Justin says.
"With the growing love for my husband and children, I no longer suspect much of him cheating on me even when he goes away from home for such a long period of work," says Mary Grace. "I always stay focused, pray for him and look forward for his return."
Kai T. Hill is an associate web producer for CRS. She works in the Baltimore headquarters.