Today was Pope Benedict XVI’s last full day in Cameroun. Thousands of Camerounians and foreigners gathered in the national stadium to listen to the papal mass, which essentially consisted of a reiteration of what the Pope has been saying since his arrival on Tuesday: peace and love for Africa, especially for those people who abstain from sex, are faithful, and protect the rights of the unborn child.
Although not allowed in the mass itself, we were able to watch the Pope’s entourage pass us by – the Pope on display in what definitely passed for a proper Pope Mobile a la Cameroun. Although we are in the capital city of Yaoundé and the country seemed to watch the televised mass without exception, the streets themselves were fairly calm, almost as if suspended and waiting for something big to happen. Soldiers and police were out in full force, but from where we were, they kept order with jokes and pleasantries mixed with the occasional shouted command, including to us when we tried to take video footage from a balcony. When the Pope Mobile finally passed, most people applauded, but not as vociferously as we had expected. The crowds were sparse and quickly disbursed with little ceremony.
We talked to several people today, both beforehand and in the crowd, and here are some excerpts from their comments:
Julienne Nouthe, a medical doctor based in Yaoundé, took umbrage about the Pope’s comments regarding condoms not being effective for HIV prevention. She likened the AIDS epidemic to an ocean and a healthy life to a boat: “The Pope says we must turn to abstinence and fidelity, but not everyone can abstain or be faithful. If AIDS touches everyone like the ocean, the strongest boat [modes of protection] may be abstinence and fidelity, but for those who can’t reach that boat, we need condoms.”
Jean, a taxi driver based in Douala, offered his opinion on the papal visit, without solicitation from us. He commented on the poor and deteriorating economic situation faced by the majority of Camerounians, and had a hard time accepting the amount of money that was spent on accommodating the Pope. He felt that the amount of funds spent on the papal visit far outweighed any benefits the average Camerounian will see from the church as a result of this visit.
Claudia, a resident of Yaoundé, when asked how she thinks the HIV epidemic can be ameliorated, responded, “with protection by avoiding having sex without protecting yourself . I think [condoms] are a way to protect yourself against many diseases, including HIV.”
A waitress we encountered while watching the mass in a local internet café in Yaoundé was happy with the papal visit and said, “The Pope said God loves Africa and that we should have hope.” When asked if that gave her hope, she smiled and responded, “Yes, it does.”
The Pope’s visit is a signal of more to come in terms of the church’s engagement with Africa. For reproductive and sexual rights workers, we need to ensure that dangerous statements, such as those we heard this week in Cameroun, do not roll back the progress made thus far in increasing awareness and knowledge of the importance of both female and male condoms as one of the only means of preventing HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. As individuals concerned with securing sexual and reproductive rights for all people, no matter where they live and no matter what religion they ascribe to, we need to better strategize about how we can be more proactive and less reactive to events and messages that perpetuate misinformation and stigmatization of life-saving interventions. We need to be more diligent about anticipating the opposition, maintaining clear and consistent messages, and articulating the evidence, which must not be subsumed by ideology.