Friday, December 01, 2006

World AIDS Day

I used to be an English Language and Literature teacher in a rural school in Zimbabwe. Every morning I used to read out a roll call for my classes, names eagerly answered by kids who might just have run several miles barefoot to be in class.

Since then Zimbabwe has been through a rough patch. But overshadowing the combination of poor weather and disastrous government has been the terrible curse of AIDS. Even when I was teaching there nearly two decades ago we were aware that AIDS was a menace – but now around 1 in 5 people in Zimbabwe are infected with HIV. Today is World AIDS day:

The uniquely devastating impact of AIDS is that it hits the most productive, dynamic and attractive segments of society – quite literally those most able to have multiple sexual partners. So attractive, well educated and rich young people are the group with the highest chance of suffering. Most historical diseases by contrast – like the medieval plagues or the 20th century influenza – would typically cut down the old, the very young and the weak. AIDS does the opposite.

So a country that desperately needs economic development, that has invested so much in the education of its youth faces the tragedy that these are the very ones being cut down. The children I taught were the ones most likely to move to the cities in the hope of getting a job to match their new education, the ones whose lifestyle changes left them most open to this most insidious of killers. And abject misrule means that anti-retroviral drugs that could keep people alive are just not getting through.

A couple of years ago I was working in Africa again and I went back to my old school for a brief visit. It was at the time of an election so signs of Mugabe’s misrule could be seen in scorched patches on the road (from tyre-burning road blocks) and the occasional burst of tear gas as the ZANU-PF Womens’ League rampaged across Harare.

But infinitely more chilling was the huge sign that had been erected over the local township where I had taught. It only had three words: “Coffins For Sale”.

A former student told me of some of the people who had ‘passed away’ – some I knew, some I did not. I dread to think what would happen if I started that roll call today.

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