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From: Readers' feedback issue – Footsteps 31

What is at the heart of participatory development and empowerment?

An old man was speaking to the village elders about AIDS and told them a story…

One day a young mother, Philomena, was talking to other ladies in the village while they weaved baskets. She told them how her new baby was fascinated by the fire that burnt day and night in the middle of the floor in her home. He loved to see the sparks fly into the air and would try to crawl towards the dancing flames. Only that morning he had tried to pick up a glowing ember and cried when she pulled him away.

We have to have the fire in our houses,’ she said, ‘but how did you teach your children to avoid getting burnt and to use it safely?

One lady said, ‘Children have to learn by experience. I let my son find out by himself. He soon found out that fire burns – and he never went near the fire again.’

Yes,’ thought Philomena, ‘your boy’s hands are so deformed he cannot hold a spade or a pencil. I don’t want my son to be like that.

Then a second lady said, ‘No – children must be taught to fear the fire. I drew a circle round the fire in the dust and told my children I would beat them if they put a hand over the line.’

But your daughters are quite big now and cannot cook the porridge,’ thought Philomena. ‘I don’t want my children to be like that.

A third lady said, ‘No – children have to learn to use the fire safely and experience its blessings. I, too, made certain rules and told them if they disobeyed them I would punish them severely.

Yes,’ thought Philomena, ‘it was your son who made one little mistake and was burnt in the house because he was afraid of being punished if he called for help. I do not want my child to be like that.

Then the wife of the chief spoke and said, ‘Yes – fire is a very wonderful thing and we cannot live without it. It cooks our food, it scares wild animals and warms our bodies. But it is also hungry for fuel and burns anything it can. It will harm us if we do not use it properly. It can be a gentle friend, or a destroying giant when out of control. So I taught my children how to make fires, how to use them and what to do if they made mistakes and something caught alight. I also told them never to be afraid of asking for help if they made a mistake, because though I might be angry, I would not beat them and did not want them to get hurt.

Yes,’ said Philomena, ‘it was your children who pulled a baby out of a fire one day. That is what I shall do. I shall teach my children that fire is wonderful, but also dangerous. I will help them understand and slowly teach them how to use it safely.’

Ah,‘ said the chief, who had been listening all the time, ‘that is very sensible. I have lived a long time and know that young people will experiment and play. But if we teach our children properly, the whole community will benefit and not be at risk.’

When the story was over, the people discussed it for a time and then asked the teacher to explain what the story meant, and this is what he said…

The sexual urge is like a fire – given by God for our pleasure and for our use. Because of this urge, men and women join together to have children. The urge is very strong and, like fire, can be both a wonderful comfort or a destroying force that can tear a family apart or cause men and women to kill one another in jealousy. It can hold men and women together or bring disease and death. That is why every society has rules about how to use it – tribal rules, Moslem rules, Hindu rules, Buddhist rules and Christian rules – all trying to help us use this gift from God well.

Nearly all of them say that the gift of sex should only be used after some sort of legal agreement between families. There should be a public declaration so that everyone in the society knows that this man and woman belong to one another. Most societies expect the girl to be a virgin, and are much quicker to condemn the girl who makes a mistake than a boy who ‘gets experience’.

Our Christian way is very clear. We believe God teaches that the gift of sex should only be enjoyed within a marriage relationship. It should not be used before marriage or with other partners outside it. This is the ideal way because young people cannot bring disease into the marriage. However, we know that we do make mistakes and there is always a way of forgiveness.

Now AIDS has come among us and is like the wind suddenly blowing the fire and turning a small mistake into a killing blaze. We pass it from one person to another by mis-using God’s gift. We go with just one person and find that we have condemned ourselves to death.

We cannot be like the first lady and just allow our young people to learn from experience. They will pay for that experience with their lives. If we are like the second lady and do not explain things or discuss the problem, they will not understand and take needless risks. Even the third lady, who tried to explain a little, relied on threats and fear.

Like the chief and his wife, we must explain the dangers and allow our people to make their own decisions and to use the gift of sex wisely. A fire can be started by anyone and lead to many innocent people burning. This is why we Christians have the responsibility of teaching things like ‘safer sex’ which we might not agree with ourselves but can help those outside the church to avoid infection.

'The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light.' Romans 13:12

Jesus moved with prostitutes and sinners and always responded to both sin and disease with love and compassion – so must we!

Discussion Questions

With thanks to Dr Alexandre Saúl of AEA, Angola, for initiating these discussion questions.

AIDS Resource Materials


This is an exciting new training package with 240 page manual and video developed by Action Aid. It is very helpful in encouraging people of all ages to express their feelings and learn about AIDS through discussion and role-play (though it does not have a Christian perspective). The video is available in English, French, Luganda and Kiswahili and the manual only in English and French. The full package is approximately $150, but could be shared widely in churches and organisations. For more information contact one of the following…

TALC, PO Box 49, St Albans, AL1 4AX, UK Stepping Stones, PO Box 676, Kampala, Uganda


The Strategies for Hope series now has 11 booklets in the series with most titles available in French and English. These booklets are free to groups working in sub-saharan Africa. Details from TALC (above).

Other useful contacts for training materials and the Strategies for Hope booklets:

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