Wednesday, November 30, 2005

How could anyone not know about HIV/AIDS?

The circumstances surrounding Jacob's death were upsetting. I was incredibly touched by his father's story. What shocked me more though was a conversation that took place shortly afterwards.

There were five of us sat around the fire. All men. I was considerably younger than the others though. I'm in my thirties whereas each of the others were at least fifty. The conversation started with one of the men saying ' I don't know what is happening to all our young people in this country. They are all dying.' I was stunned by his words. I knew all about the conspiracy of silence that surrounds HIV/AIDS but this did not seem like a man in denial. The other men nodded in agreement. None of them knew what was happening to their youngsters either. I wanted to scream at them 'They are dying of AIDS for God's sake!!!' but I said nothing.

These men were bright intelligent men. Leaders of their community. Well educated, articulate but...did they not know about HIV? How could they not know? Then again why would a man in his fifties know anything about HIV/AIDS? Where and with whom would he ever discuss it? No wonder these men could not guide their children. Did their grown up children, who certainly knew more of the risks of unprotected sex and promiscuity, need their guidance anyway? They certainly wouldn't have sort it.

I still don't know what to make of the conversation. I still genuinely believe that these men knew nothing of HIV/AIDS though. I don't know how anyone could not know about it but then again was I looking for the messages on the subject? I was. I listened to radio ads, read newspaper ads but I was always an outsider looking in. Did I ever have anything like the same perceptions as a Zimbabwean, Zambian or Motswana? I don't know...

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Death without dignity in Zimbabawe

My uncles story of his sons death was touching. As we sat around the fire he told me of his loss and his grief.

His son, Jacob, had been at the cattle post for about a week but had made his way back to the city due to his ill health. Apparently he had been ill several months earlier but had made a seemingly full recover (it's amazing how often I heard that at funerals!) Upon reaching home he could barely walk or talk so my uncle immediately drove him to the main hospital in Bulawayo. Jacob was obviously seriously ill and his father genuinely believed that the hospital would be able to help him. Afterall this was Zimbabwe - for so long the bread basket of Southern Africa. My uncle knew only of a well resourced highly efficient hospital that served Bulawayo. He was broken hearted to find the hospital in a state of disrepair and filth. With no other option he checked Jacob into the ward. Jacob was taken for examination and was returned to the ward where his father awaited. My uncle was then informed that unfortunately there was no medicine available and that all the hospital could do was place Jacob under observation. My uncle was obviously shocked but said he felt that at least the authorities would be able to look after his son. He then asked the nurses for blankets to cover his shaking and desperately ill son. He was told that there were no blankets available and that patients had to supply their own blankets. My uncle immediately drove home to get blankets but could not fathom how it could be that a hospital could not provide a desperately sick man with something to cover himself. When he arrived back he did his best to keep his son warm until in the early hours of the next morning Jacob passed away.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Bulawayo funeral house

It was my first visit to Betty's uncles place. I had expected a fairly modest dwelling but I found them living in a large farmhouse on the outskirts of Bulawayo. The house was somewhat rundown on the outside byt was very well kept internally. The warmth of the welcome we received was overwhelming especially given the circumstances - they had just lost their son! We arrived on a Saturday afernoon. The family had just returned from their church service (as 7th Day Adventists they worship on Saturday.) Betty remained in the house with the women whilst I greeted the women before venturing outside to join the men around the open fire. It was daylight but there was a nip in the air so the warmth of the fire was welcome. The grounds of the house were immaculately kept. Vegetables were growing and elsewhere the lawn was neatly mowed. If I hadn't had known better I would have thought the family to be quite prosperous. Infact they were well off not long before but Mugabe's tyranny, especially against the Ndebele people in Matabeleland, had made their saving worthless. Betty's uncle worked as an inspector of schools. A good well paid job in normal times but like any other Zimbabweans, outside of the Presidents inner circle, the family were living from hand to mouth.

Betty's uncle is an inspirational man though. Despite the hardships he was suffering, the economic ruin and mostly the loss of his son he refused to be downhearted. His faith in God obviously sustained him and his family - although they had many questions they wanted to ask God!

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Death and hardship in Zimbabwe

One day whilst we were living in Francistown we received a phone call to tell us that one of Betty's cousins had died in Bulawayo. The next weekend we crossed the border into Zimbabawe and headed to Betty's uncles home.

We crossed the border at Plumtree countless times. We'd often spend weekends in Bulawayo - either with family memebers or in hotels. Hotels were cheap. You'd change your Botswana Pula into Zim Dolars at the border and for what amounted to enough money for a few groceries in Botswana you could enjoy a great weekend in Bulawayo.

The border crossing was relatively painless. It was as frustrating at times but we were rarely harrassed. To be fair the Zimbabwean officials treated us with great respect, despite my British passport, and we'd often face more needless bureuacracy when crossing back in to Bots - even with residence permits! On the odd occasion we had to pay tax on the groceries we were carrying. The tax was piitance but the delay caused by queuing to pay it was an unnecessary burden.

The groceries we carried were for relatives in the Bulawayo area. Due to the ever worsening plight of the people of Zimbabawe it became increasingy necessary for us to carry groceries including mealie meal, sugar, flour, cooking oil and salt every time we travelled. These commodoties were unavialable in Bulawayo (and I'm talking about nearly three years ago - the stories we hear from over there today are horrorendous!)

After crossing the border one would pull over into a lay-by where one would instantly be surrounded by dozens of young lads offering varying exchange rates for Botswana Pula. After making the trip several times we got to know a few ofthe boys and we always used the same ones when changing money. That way one could be sure to avoid the special branch officers who alledgedly infiltrated the money changers. I'd pick up one of our lads at the border and drive slowly to Plumtree village, a few KM's away. As I drove Betty would sort out the exchange of currrency with the lad. The system worked well and was safe. After the deal was done we'd drop the lad off at Plumtree village so that he could make his way back to the border. Using the parallel market became a perfectly natural thing to do and literally everyone from Botswana travelling into Zims did the same.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Bob plays russian roulette

Whilst in Botswana I worked as a lecturer at a College of Education. Whilst working there I struck up a friendship with an Irishman called Bob. Bob was in his late 40's but was quite youthful in his attitude to life and he kept himself in great shape physically. In fact it was through playing squash that I got to know Bob quite well.

Bob and I would play squash at least twice a week and usually grab a quick drink after the game. Bob didn't drink alcohol and whereas I'd knock back a beer or two Bob would have a coke. As we grew to know one another we began to share experiences. Bob had worked in Botswana for several years and had some very interesting tales to tell. I think Bob thought he was impressing me with his stories of his sexual exploits but that was certainly not the case. In fact it was odd. Bob would tell me about how he'd slept with this woman or another but he didn't seem to be boasting. In fact he was very matter of fact in his story telling. I found Bob's stories fascinating. I was particularly fascinated by the fact that a very intelligent man with a great deal of zest for life was regularly playing Russian Roulette with his life by sleeping with up to five women a week. Some of whom he confessed to sleeping with without using a condom. Bob knew the risks of unprotected sex. He knew that 40% of the women in the age range of those he bedded were statistically likely to be HIV positive. He evidently didn't care. I don't know if Bob was HIV positive himself. I don't know if Bob knew his status. I don't think Bob cared! He didn't care if he caught the virus and he didn't care if he passed on the virus. Funnily enough I liked Bob as much as I despised his attitude. I felt sorry for him as well but I know he didn't deserve my sympathy.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

No fear!

In fact most of the guys I got to know in Botswana worried very little about catching HIV. Now I'm not talking about illiterate guys who knew nothing about the virus or saw it as some form of curse. I'm talking about educated guys who knew exactly how the virus is transmitted but still had little or no fear of it. I'm talking of Batswana friends of mine, Zimbabwean friends, Zambian friends and friends from the UK and Irealnd.

Before I lived in Botswana I assumed that anyone who knew anything about HIV/AIDS would avoid unprotected sex. Of course they would. Afterall it's a potentially fatal virus. It kills you and people want to avoid death at all costs. Certainly that is the attitude I had when I went to live in Botswana. That attitude was to change the longer I lived in Botswana. I didn't actually indulge in risky behaviour myself but I began to understand the mindset of those who did. Some of their stories I will tell in forthcoming posts...

Monday, November 07, 2005

Protecting Oneself from HIV

I suppose I imagined that an undertaker in Sub-Saharan Africa would be incredibly careful in ensuring that he protected himself against the HIV virus. On reflection I'm sure he was very careful - afterall he is still alive! It's one of those perserve things about the HIV virus in Sub-Saharan Africa that even an undertaker would have many sexual partners. My friend is a happily married man but I know that on business trips he would not pass up the opportunity for a one night stand with a beautiful woman. I know that condoms are 93-97% effective in protecting one from HIV and other STI's but my preconceptions led me to believe that if one suspected that a potential sexual partner might be positive then one would pass up the opportunity of sex. This was certainly not the case with my friend the undertaker and neither was it the case with the rest of the guys I knew in his circle of friends.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

My friend the undertaker

Another friend of mine in Botswana is an undertaker. He is a Motswana but has an English father. After spending a few years in the UK he returned to Botswana to start up his own business - as an undertaker. His business grew from fairly humble beginnings to become one of the largest burial services in North East Botswana. He estimated that on average he will oversee at least 15 burials every Saturday. Sometimes he had to pass up business and refer potential clients to another undertaker - such is the demand for undertakers in Sub-Saharan Africa. He, like a handful of others who started up as undertakers in the early to mid 90's, is a rich man.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Reflections on Boipelo's Life

Boipelo's death particularly touched me. I guess part of the reason I felt affected was because she was so young and full of life. She was also one of the first people I knew who died from an Aids related illness. It's not that Boipelo ever told me or Betty that she was HIV positive, afterall very few people will disclose their HIV status to anyone in Botswana (or elsewhere for that matter) but we knew she was 'sick'. All who knew her knew she was 'sick'. No one ever described her as anything other than 'sick'. No one would ever openly say 'I suspect that Boipelo's illness is AIDS related'. I'd know that the other person knew and they'd know that I knew but neither of us could ever say it!

Weeks after Boipelo's death I spoke to a doctor friend of mine. He confirmed that Boipelo had been treated for HIV but that she had not adhered to the strick regime of taking her Anti-retrovirals. Apparently as her health seemingly improved she returned to her party-girl lifestyle and gave up on her treatment. She was young and reckless in that sense but I too was fearless in my youth. I drove my car too fast, I took risks and did things that were potentially life threatening. Most people would say the same. Boipelo took the risk of not taking her pills. She didn't live to tell her story though....