AIDS smothers African kingdom

Swaziland: AIDS is destroying a nation, but shame and misunderstanding muffle outcries and stifle a response.

November 04, 2000|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MBABANE, Swaziland -- When lawmakers in this mountain kingdom met this year to respond to the country's AIDS crisis, they proposed some peculiar solutions: HIV-positive citizens should be branded, one parliamentarian suggested. Another favored locking them away in concentration camps. Still another thought sterilization was best.

In the end, the Swaziland parliament agreed to ban miniskirts in schools, arguing that it would reduce sexual relations between teachers and students.

The measures evoked laughter from many citizens, living in a nation sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique. But the proposals were also a sign of desperation, AIDS activists here say, as this tradition-minded country ruled by a monarch comes to terms with an epidemic clouded in mystery, misunderstanding and shame.

The health statistics are staggering for a country with a population less than a fifth of Maryland's:

In a society of just under 1 million people, about 22 percent of the population is believed to have human immunodeficiency virus, the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome. About 40 percent of all pregnant women are HIV-positive; 15 percent of all newborn babies carry HIV. About 35,000 children have been orphaned because their parents have died of AIDS. The government predicts that in the next 10 years more than 200,000 people -- one in five citizens -- will have died as a result of HIV/AIDS. And by 2005 life expectancy will have dropped to age 38 from age 59.

Swaziland ranks with Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa as one of the nations with the highest rate of infection. Yet compared to these other countries, Swaziland has yet to fully appreciate the problem.

Each week, dozens of families bury their loved ones without acknowledging what struck them down. The pages of the national newspaper the Swazi News are filled with the obituaries of 20- to 30-year-olds that offer no cause of death other than "a long illness."`The number of deaths is rising. I think the government is in shock, in a panic," said Vusi Matsebula, who embodies the dreadful consequence of the country's silence.

Eight years ago, Matsebula said, he met a young woman at a party and spent the night with her. A week later, she telephoned him to deliver awful news with about as much emotion as if she were forecasting the weather. "Vusi, you are going to die," he remembered her saying. "You now have AIDS. You got it from me." He remembered her giggling and then hanging up.

"To me, it was a joke," Matsebula said. "I didn't know anything." In Swaziland, "there was nothing ever said about the disease." But a blood test confirmed the woman's prediction: He was HIV-positive. For Matsebula, then a 22-year-old with plans to attend college, it marked the beginning of his membership in a sort of underground.

"People in this country are very much afraid to talk about AIDS or to accept that relatives -- mothers, fathers, sons and daughters -- are dying from AIDS," said Christabel Motsa, chairwoman of the government's newly formed crisis committee on disease. "This kind of denial caused a slow response to the disease. Why people are in denial I don't think is clear to anyone."

Tradition blamed for spread

Health officials blame the country's ties to tradition as a cause for the rapid spread of HIV here. Southern Africa's only remaining kingdom, Swaziland is ruled by 32-year-old monarch, King Mswati III, also known as the lion king. He has seven wives.

Many men in rural areas follow his example by practicing polygamy or having multiple partners, leading to the spread of HIV. Swazi culture also remains mistrustful of Western ideas of medicine. Contraceptives are frowned upon by much of the population, making the problem worse.

"We believe so much in traditional healing that whether you are educated or not, when you are sick the first stop is the traditional healer, not the clinic or the hospital," Motsa said. By the time the ill seek help from a physician, their health is so poor, they cannot be helped.

Matsebula, now 30, is a rarity in Swaziland for his willingness to speak openly about his condition. He walks down the streets of Swaziland's sleepy capital, Mbabane, with a T-shirt emblazoned with giant block letters that say "HIV POSITIVE," catching stares from people passing by.

Swaziland has had no public figure announce he was HIV-positive, to encourge people to discuss AIDS. The government's ad campaigns to raise AIDS awareness are meek and ineffective, critics say. So Matsebula speaks about his illness with school groups and on radio and television, trying to push the secret of AIDS into the open.

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