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It’s worse than you imagined

By Hugh Russell

The Spectator
March 1, 2003

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 time.

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.

1. Ritual 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.

3. Dry 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.

Perhaps the 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 tissue.

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.

Our 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 coming.

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.

More 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.

There’s 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 for us.

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