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A while back I was in four African countries – Kenya, Malawi, Swaziland, and South Africa. ‘Memorable’ is one word that springs to mind as I try to adequately describe it. ‘Life-changing’ is another. You see, I saw things in Africa that I hadn’t ever seen before. Yes, I was aware of them and had come across them, but in Africa, they just seemed much more obvious. It was an in-your-face encounter and, when that happens, it is something you don’t quickly get over.

Sure, the various meetings were superbly blessed of God – I think of scores of hugely appreciative pastors and church leaders, Bible college students, and congregations hungry for expository Bible teaching. I think of lively, vibrant, joyful, African worship. I think of a few hours respite from a demanding schedule which we spent in one of the major Kenyan game parks. I think of very ordinary people for whom nothing was too much trouble and for whom a servant heart and lifestyle is commonplace. I think of the smells and sounds of rural Africa as well as the unbelievable crime statistics in urban centres of population. I think of stunningly beautiful scenery contrasted with the horrendous slums endured by many in the sprawling townships.

I can’t help but think of one stretch of pot-holed, tarmac road in Lilongwe, capital of Malawi – I can see it yet, it’s indelibly etched on my mind – why? Well, on the road going south towards Blantyre, within 200 yards maximum, I counted no fewer than 10 coffin-making shops. Then I stopped counting! I was so taken aback. Yes, 10 little shacks where a few men do nothing else all day long but make wooden coffins! It is a thriving cottage industry, a bit like an automated assembly line churning out coffin after coffin.

Let’s face it, they wouldn’t be doing that if there wasn’t a demand for their product. The reality is, if things keep on going as they are, these men will never be out of business. The won’t-go-away fact tells us that there is a growing need for such ‘make-hay-while-the-sun-shines’ enterprise. HIV/AIDS is a ruthless killer. It’s lethal. And it’s killing an awful lot of people in Malawi and right across the African continent today. The statistics are alarming. Scary.

In the twenty years since the disease was recognised, it has killed 20 million people and infected another 40 million, most of whom will die during this decade. Approximately 3 million die of AIDS causes each year, and 5 million are newly infected. At least 14 million children have lost a mother to AIDS. Two-thirds of those infected live in sub-Saharan Africa, and another quarter in southeast Asia and other developing countries.

No wonder health experts within the UN have said that the pandemic of AIDS ‘has become the most devastating disease humankind has ever faced.’

Take Malawi, for example. AIDS is the leading cause of death among people aged 15 to 49. Life expectancy has plummeted from 52 to 42. In this land-locked country, where there is a reliance on agriculture and subsistence farming, there are 500,000 orphans – the World Bank estimates that this number is growing annually by 70,000. In the health and education professions, AIDS has increased death rates by 600 percent.

In South Africa, it is expected that by 2010 the prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS is expected to reach 25 percent. Virtually an entire generation is in grave danger of being wiped out – every day more than 1,500 South Africans become infected with HIV, two-thirds of them between 15 and 20 years of age. The legacy is such that by 2008 it is feared that orphans will exceed 1,600,000.

Graveyard inscriptions tell their own story – and they don’t lie:

BORN 8.4.1984 – DIED 12.4.2004

Africa is people. Yes! Lots of them. And those hundreds of thousands of people dying in their abject hopelessness desperately need the Lord. Like the coffin makers, we need to seize the moment – carpe diem – and introduce them to Jesus Christ. As my dear friend, the late Stephen Boakye-Yiadom, said so often: ‘Africa needs Jesus!’ He’s right!