Ethiopia: One Teacher Can Save Thousands of Lives

 {Photo credit: MSH}Meleakeselam Kahilayu at Teklehaimanot monastery, South Tigray, Ethiopia.Photo credit: MSH

Melakeselam Kalayu is a religious leader who has been conducting baptisms for 15 years at Teklehaimanot Monastery in southern Tigray, Ethiopia. Throughout this time, Kalayu had prohibited people from taking any medications while using holy water at the monastery.

Among the thousands of visitors to the monastery every day, many are people living with HIV (PLHIV). In response to Kalayu's teaching, many stopped their antiretroviral therapy (ART) while using holy water at the monastery.

“I thought medicine should not be taken while using holy water, and I prohibited people who were taking medicine from washing with or drinking holy water,” Kalayu said. “But Haileselassie Kahilayu taught me that what I was teaching was not right.”

Kahilayu is one of the religious leaders trained by the Ethiopia Network for HIV/AIDS Treatment, Care, and Support (ENHAT-CS) project. Financed by the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) through the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the five-year project is implemented by a Management Sciences for Health (MSH)-led consortium.

Since the program started in October 2011, ENHAT-CS has facilitated the training of over 600 religious leaders such as Kahilayu through its partnership with the Ethiopian Interfaith Forum for Development Dialogue and Action (EIFDDA). The religious leaders are trained on HIV-related issues, including learning that PLHIV should not stop their ART while using holy water.

After the training, Kahilayu was determined to do not only his administrative office work, but to also go out and teach what he had learned. At Tekelehaimanot Monastery, he faced resistance from Kalayu.

“I argued a lot with Kalayu,” Kahilayu said. “He couldn’t accept that people can take medicine while using holy water due to his religious background. I taught him what I learned. Later, I even had to warn him that I was going to fire him from his position in the monastery.”

It has been now almost a year since Kalayu started to teach PLHIV to continue their ART while using holy water. Many PLHIV now testify that they have benefited from Kalayu’s teaching and counseling.