Panel 4 - Zambia: Hope in the AIDS epicentre
In Zambia, where one out of five people are HIV positive, local health educators say everyone is either affected or infected by HIV/AIDS. Virtually everyone you meet has lost friends or relatives to AIDS. Some 360,000 children have lost at least one parent, most of them to AIDS. Many of the orphans exist at the mercy of friends or relatives. Life expectancy at birth in Zambia has dropped from 50 to 40 years since 1990, and child mortality rates are rising to levels not seen since the early 1970s, erasing a quarter-century of progress on children's health and welfare.
In the grip of this calamity and against sobering odds, some Zambians have chosen to live hopefully even as many struggle with their own poverty and difficult life circumstances. They brave a stigma by their association with AIDS and often are themselves discriminated against as they work to spare future generations from the ravages of this disease. Among the determined are the energetic members of the Anti-AIDS Club of Chibolya.
"Save Your Life - Learn About AIDS" proclaims a slogan on the side of the white truck as it bounces along the dirt lanes of the rambling shanty community of Chibolya, in Lusaka, the Zambian capital. Loudspeakers mounted on the truck bark in all directions, "Come hear the Anti-AIDS Club of Chibolya - performance in five minutes. Learn about AIDS - protect yourself!" Children race out of cinder block homes, jumping on the rear bumper of the truck, laughing and screaming in anticipation of the show.
The vehicle, covered in a thick coat of grey dust, stops in an open area where five young men and one woman, all dressed in green plaid pants and T-shirts, stand waiting. A crowd, numbering about 350 and including many young children, gathers in a large circle around the performers and breaks into song. The mood is festive although the message is clearly serious.
Three drummers signal the start of the performance. "Now we have come to teach you about HIV/AIDS. Woza! [Come!]" they sing. A teenage boy and girl sprint out and dance amid the swelling circle of young onlookers. The rapt audience roars with laughter as the dancers give way to a young man dressed in big red shoes, overalls and a funny hat. He is playing the part of a father who is scolding his teenage daughter, "You mustn't go out with so many men!"
After the performance, audience members crowd around the truck asking for information about AIDS and for condoms. This hunger for information is itself an accomplishment. The stigma associated with the disease means that there is a remarkable silence about AIDS in Zambia. Relatives will often say that an AIDS patient simply died of pneumonia, or tuberculosis, two of the many secondary infections that afflict AIDS patients. AIDS is sometimes referred to as 'the slimming disease', masking the true cause of the problem.
"We are making a difference," asserts Levy Kafuti, the 23-year-old coordinator of the troupe. "More people come to our performances every time. By the time kids reach puberty, they will know exactly how to protect themselves. It gives us much hope."
The Anti-AIDS Club of Chibolya, formed in 1995, is one of 1,760 such clubs in Zambia spreading AIDS-prevention messages through a variety of activities. The Chibolya Club's boys' soccer team and girls' netball team, for instance, deliver HIV/AIDS-awareness messages at their games. Performances of the 10-member drama troupe are staged in conjunction with visits of the Family Health Trust 'AIDSmobile', which distributes free condoms, advice and literature.