It’s worse than you
There are a lot of myths about
why Aids is widespread in
Africa. But the facts, says Hugh Russell, are more bizarre
The funeral processions trundle
past my garden gates at any and every hour of the day. Sometimes they are rather
grand affairs, with a purpose-built hearse and an ornate coffin gleaming through
its transparent walls. But more often — in fact, almost invariably — the coffin,
of plain unvarnished wood, is carried in the back of an ancient pick-up and
attended by mourners who squat perilously on the sides of the vehicle as it
rattles over the potholes. Another couple of pick-ups or trucks follow, each
carrying up to 40 mourners. The women sing.
At the cemetery the huge humps of newly dug reddish earth,
the rickety wooden crosses and the litter of dying flowers are like something
out of a Hammer horror movie. But the place is alive with people, as the various
cortèges come and go. It’s said that people often get confused and attend the
wrong burial. This is Aids in Africa.
At a local sports club the
secretary showed me a fly-blown photograph on the notice-board. It was a picture
of the club’s rugby XV from 14 years ago. Two of the team were white — Brits,
the secretary told me, who had gone home long ago. Of the 13 Zambians, 11 were
dead. Of the remaining two, one he wasn’t sure about, and the other was still
alive, and in fact turned out on a Saturday afternoon when he could find the
I needed some tiles for my bathroom, and went to the local tile
centre which, by some quirk of planning, is situated to the rear of an
undertaker. To reach the display you have to pass through the undertaker’s
showroom, and at first I sniggered to myself as I strode past the ranks of
coffins. Then I noticed that at least half of them were only three to four feet
long, or less.
The UN secretary-general’s special envoy for HIV/Aids in
Africa, one Stephen Lewis, reported in a Sunday newspaper on a visit he made not
long ago to a paediatric ward here. While he was on the ward, he said, children
with Aids were dying at the rate of one every quarter of an hour. Forgive me if
I repeat that: one every quarter of an hour.
This is Aids in Africa.
It’s rarely called Aids, of course. Cause of death is given as malaria or
pneumonia or TB and, strictly speaking, that may be true. But the ruthless
syndrome lies behind almost all the fatalities.
Nelson Mandela recently
spoke of Aids ‘decimating’ southern Africa. Would to God that he was right.
Statistics vary, of course, but even the most optimistic figures show that a far
greater proportion than one in ten of the population is threatened. At an
educated guess, one in five of us here in Zambia is HIV positive. But in the
age-group most at risk — 15 to 40 — that figure comes down to one in three. In
the 14th century the Black Death was operating at about the same average. Of
course, that plague moved swiftly. Aids takes its time, which is why we call it,
with grim humour, the ‘slow puncture’.
In 1993 our neighbour Botswana,
the place that used to be Bechuanaland and which today is one of the most
economically successful countries in Africa, had an estimated population of 1.4
million. Today that figure is well under a million and heading downwards.
Doom-merchants predict that Botswana may soon become the first nation in modern
times literally to die out.
This is Aids in Africa. But why? Why has the
syndrome got such a vice-like grip on us while its hold in Europe and America
is, comparatively speaking, tenuous? What’s God got against Africa?
Let’s kill off a few canards first. We are not more gay than you. I know
it’s politically incorrect to speak of Aids as having links with homosexuality,
but of course in Europe and the US it does. Here in Zambia we have relatively
few active gays. We have relatively fewer needle-sharing junkies, too.
Nor can the blame be laid on anal intercourse, another alleged cause of
the spread of Aids. It may be common enough in Europe; in fact, judging by some
dinner-table conversations in suburbia these days, it’s practically mandatory.
But not so here. What’s more, Zambian law says that buggery is illegal, and you
go to jail for it, as a sad German tourist found out to his cost a year ago.
Is it, then, that Africans are simply more immoral, that African society
is just too casual? No, of course not. Society here is a complex web of
tradition, custom, superstition and folklore, and the average Zambian sticks
rigidly to the tribal code.
But perhaps that’s part of the problem.
Perhaps it is in this strict adherence to custom that Zambians and other
Africans make themselves particularly vulnerable to the virus. Let me tell you
about three of those customs. The last will make you wince.
cleansing. This is not, sadly, some kind of elaborate bath. It has to do with
the laying of ghosts. The belief is that when a husband dies his ghost will
‘follow’ his widow; and it will drive her mad unless she is ‘cleansed’.
Traditionally, cleansing requires the widow to have sex with a close male
relative — perhaps her husband’s uncle. Once this is done — often with a fee
payable to the lucky uncle — the widow is deemed cleansed, and the ghost will
disturb her and the family no more. Of course, if the husband died of Aids, and
his widow also has the syndrome, then she will probably pass it on to Uncle.
In some districts this form of cleansing has been banned by the local
chief who is, understandably, worried about his ever-decreasing population, or
argued out of existence by persistent missionaries and health workers. Then the
widow has another option. She can hop on a minibus and travel to a different
part of Zambia, where she is a stranger. There she will make herself as
attractive as she can, then slip into a local bar. She will pretend to be drunk,
find a drunken man, and have quick casual sex with him. By making love to a
stranger, she will ensure that the ghost of her husband leaves her and follows
the man — as indeed may the Aids virus. The ghost will in turn drive the strange
man mad. This belief is so entrenched that when a young man shows signs of
mental unbalance his friends and family will nod wisely and remark that he must
have slept with a widow.
2. The secret society. Like the masons only
more so, this component of African life is so secret that no one ever talks
about it, and many deny that it still operates. But I’m assured by health and
social workers here that it does. This is how it comes about. In the villages of
rural Zambia, boys who reach the age of 12 or 13 undergo a ritual that initiates
them into manhood. It’s the usual sort of thing — circumcision plus lectures on
adult behaviour and a few tattoos. As a result of this experience, the boys of
any one year form a special bond, which will last a lifetime. They call it their
secret society. In future years, when one such boy visits the home of another,
he will be offered, and be expected to accept, the sexual use of his host’s
wife. This is not considered adulterous, as long as the husband is present
throughout. Not quite like the masons, perhaps.
As I said, the secret
society is not talked about openly today, but the spread of Aids among seemingly
moral and faithful married couples speaks volumes on its behalf.
sex. I warned you that this one would make you wince. Again, it’s not something
that’s talked about much, but many here believe that the practice is a major
factor in the spread of the virus, particularly when prostitution is involved.
Dry sex is what it sounds like. For reasons that baffle me and perhaps
most European men, many Zambian and other African men prefer to make love to a
woman when she is, or appears to be, unaroused. A truck-driver told me that he
liked his partner to be ‘dry and tight’ because it made her feel like a virgin.
He found a moist vagina distasteful — ‘like she’s making water’, as he put it.
To satisfy him, his girls had to be difficult to penetrate.
most extraordinary thing is that the women go along with this. The reason, I’m
told, lies in the fundamental relationship between the sexes in southern Africa:
the woman will do anything to make her man happy. To ensure that she is in a
suitable condition when her man wants to make love, she boils up a concoction of
roots, leaves and herbs, a secret recipe handed down from mother to daughter.
The resulting brew has an astringent quality that both dries and firms vaginal
Prostitutes who service truck-drivers and other travellers at
the truck stops and border posts are said to use the same technique, which means
they can present themselves to their clients in a satisfactory state several
times a night. Just how painful sex becomes for the woman can be imagined. And
with the pain come abrasions, splits and other injuries, which result in a
greatly increased likelihood of the transmission of the Aids virus.
vice-president Enoch Kavindele, about whom I have been rude in the past,
recently advised men who are not already circumcised to get it done soonest, as
a protection against Aids. The advice sounded almost comic. But if it was
designed to avoid split and bleeding foreskins suffered during dry sex, it makes
sense. Good thinking for once, Enoch.
Health workers and other concerned
people are well aware of how deeply these three fatal customs are woven into the
fabric of Zambian society. Intensive efforts are being made to eradicate them,
but like so many things in African society, any change at all is a long time
True, ritual cleansing, in its sexual guise, is slowly becoming
less common. Instead a new format has been devised, by which the widow is
formally covered with mealie meal and then declared ‘cleansed’. But to the more
tradition-minded woman, rolling around in some dusty maize flour is a pallid
substitute for sleeping with her dead husband’s uncle. As for the dry-sex habit,
health workers hand out plenty of advice to the prostitutes and their
truck-driving clients. But prostitutes will, of course, do whatever their
clients are willing to pay for, and truck-drivers, kings of the road in southern
Africa, are not the types to have their sexual mores easily reversed. And the
secret societies? What secret societies?
The fact is, those working to
reduce the incidence of Aids in southern African countries are hoeing a hard
row. In Zambia occasional posters and wall paintings shout the message.
Schoolchildren are talked at interminably. Contraceptives are widely available
to purchase, although even the cheapest is often beyond the means of a man who
can afford to eat only perhaps once every two days.
In his State of the
Union message President Bush promised trillions of dollars to fight HIV/Aids in
Africa. Those of us with satellite television saw him do it. But his words were
virtually ignored by our local newspapers, perhaps because our editors suspect
that the White House has other things on its mind at present.
American cash will, of course, buy more anti-retroviral drugs, which could save
many lives and extend others. What’s more, many firms now supply their products
to the region at cost. But even at cost they are still out of reach of people
who have nothing. And, as the Weekly Telegraph reported recently, racketeers are
now snapping up the drugs at their low African price and smuggling them back to
Europe to sell at a vast profit.
Africa Wins Again, as the cynics here,
and possibly those in Washington, will say. And another thing: here, even if the
anti-retroviral drugs became available to the general populace, it is difficult
to imagine how the necessary strict medical supervision of the patient could be
carried out in the framework of our ramshackle social system.
some hope for a few of us — a very few. If you’ve got a slow puncture and you’re
rich enough, you can fly down to South Africa for expert treatment. Several
prominent Zambians are said to do just that. The rest — almost everyone, in fact
— sit and wait for the inevitable. Meanwhile, the funeral processions continue
to trundle past my gates with ever-increasing frequency, and one is haunted by
the feeling that the worst is yet to come.
Is there anything you can do
to help? You can, of course, donate to the various charities that work in the
field, and watch your cash go sluicing down the sink that we call ‘donor aid’.
But there’s something else you can do, which costs nothing and which, cynics
would say, is liable to be just as effective. It’s something that Zambians,
citizens of a self-proclaimed Christian country, do all the time. You can pray