November 10, 2005

acquired immune deficiency syndrome

The rains have come, and the nation breathes a collective sigh of relief. Some years the rains don't come at all. Hopefully they will stay for months. In times not long past, when commercial farms had reliable power and elaborate irrigation systems, the rainy season didn't matter so much: but nowadays, drought means famine.

Mind you, rain doesn't mean plenty. This is the planting season, but lack of forex and fuel means lack of tractor diesel, spare parts, seed, fertilizer, workforce, everything. On the minibus from Mutare to Harare yesterday, I passed field after field that were once commercial farms and are now mostly unkempt weeds, with a few small patches being sown with just enough food for the new farmers' family and friends. Zimbabwe will need food relief next year, too, count on it. And once upon a time it grew enough to feed itself and half of its neighbours.

On Tuesday I got a ride in the diplomatic-plates Land Cruiser through a hammerblow storm - when I say "rains," understand that I mean serious tropical downpours, maybe twice a day, for maybe an hour - to Mutare, where I squelched my way to 99 Fourth Street. Twenty minutes after I entered Ann Bruce's home/lodge, soaking wet, I was changed, dressed in my most formal clothing (which isn't saying much), and sitting with four Dutch NGO workers and six white-haired Zimbabweans in the faded century-old colonial splendor of the Mutare Club, eating very good Thai food. It was a little surreal.

Everywhere else I've been in Zambia and Zimbabwe, unofficial moneychanging has been done by burly dreadlocked rasta guys. (This is in part due to my prejudices; I prefer to deal with rastas and/or Muslims, my theory being that they're more trustworthy, albeit for very different reasons.) In Mutare, the transaction was handled by a portly white-haired grandmother who kept calling me "dearie". That was a little surreal too.

I explored Mutare, which didn't take long. It's a nice city, planted with flamboyants, surrounded by big round hills covered by huge granite boulders like eggs in a nest. Supermarkets, departments stores, an interesting museum, a Nando's, etc., and its proximity to the Mozambican border (about 10K) means that fuel is relatively easy to come by. By day it's entirely safe.

At night I sat in Ann's comfy living room, watched a very bad British soap named Doctors and Samuel L. in a kilt in The 51st State, and went out with Jaroon for a beer run. Jaroon and his (utterly gorgeous) wife Karin are from Haarlem, the Netherlands, and are working in Mutare on a twin-city volunteer-exchange type of program. They've been there six weeks. The contract is for a year and a half. They don't expect to remain that long. They'd like to; but they think they'll be pulled out.

Initially they moved into their own house, with an alarm system, an armed guard, and a guard dog. Their home was invaded by gunmen a few weeks ago. Since then they've stayed at Ann's until a more secure place becomes available. Ann has three (very friendly and playful) German shepherds; we took them all on our beer run. "99 times out of 100 you wouldn't need them at all," Jaroon explained. "But a couple weeks ago, a Japanese tourist went out with only one dog and got robbed."

The word on the street in Mutare - partly rumour, partly based on the arms and tactical sophistication of the home invaders - is that many of them are army soldiers supplementing their hyperinflation-ravaged pay. This is the most worrying thing I've heard since getting here: it'd be far from the first time that an African army started preying on its own citizens - a la Mobutu telling his troops to "live off the land" - and every time it's happened, to the best of my knowledge, it's led to some kind of violent collapse.


human immunodeficiency virus

I haven't really talked about AIDS since coming to Africa, which, to use the world's most tasteless simile, is a bit like going to the Playboy Mansion and writing home only about the food. But what the hell is there to say that hasn't been said ad nauseum already?

"It is encouraging to note that 83 per cent of Zambians are HIV negative," said an editorial in a newspaper I read in Lusaka, a truly breathtaking attempt at spin-doctoring. And that's only if you accept the government statistics, which of course no one does.1 In Uganda - the continental poster child for AIDS policy - there are already more than half a million AIDS orphans. And counting.

In Zimbabwe, estimates of HIV incidence among the adult population range as high as 50%. People can't afford antibiotics, never mind antiretrovirals (in the unlikely event they're available at all) and of course hunger and stress speed the disease. A lot of Zimbabweans spend a lot of their time going to funerals. My guide in the Matopos this time around told me knew my guide in the Matopos last time around, and told me that she'd passed away. Ten years ago, people here didn't tell you that someone had died of AIDS because of the profound social taboo. Today they don't tell you what they died of because it already goes without saying.

Get into a minibus in Zimbabwe, and you'll notice that you're more comfortable than you would be in that same minibus in Uganda. Because people tend to be skinnier. Hunger feeds AIDS feeds hunger; when it hits, in the space of a few weeks, victims often go from being the breadwinner of their family to being a heavy burden, and poof! their whole family's hope for the future is just gone. And then there are the truly grotesque side effects, like the widespread myth that sex with a virgin will cure you of AIDS, which leads to frequent2 rapes of young women, children, even infants.

I gather that most people here don't even want to be tested. They don't want to know. And so the epidemic continues. NGOs, not wanting to sound judgmental, delicately refer to "cultural and social factors" that contribute to the epidemic. What they mean are that a whole lot of HIV-positive Africans are having a whole lot of promiscuous unprotected sex. And years of public education campaigns don't seem to have made much difference.

But, hell, if you live in Zimbabwe, it's not like you're living for tomorrow anyways, right?


1 Basically, all statistics emerging from that part of Africa between the Sahara and South Africa are somewhere between "a good guess" and "a random number". And that's without accounting for political massagery.

2The frequency is pure guesswork on my part, but I've seen several references in local newspapers, and I'm thinking such crimes go massively underreported here.

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