Dance me to the end of time: the lost generation at an AIDS crossroad

Dance me to the end of time: the lost generation at an AIDS crossroad

Gethin Chamberlain, in Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia, for The Scotsman, 1 December 2003

CAROL Singwoma is weaving her way through the crowd, the eyes of the men on her dirty white knitted turtle-neck top and the little skirt covering her thin legs. Her skin is a deep black, her eyes big and open, her features attractive, if not quite pretty. She is giggling, her arms folded across her small breasts, aware of the attention of the men swigging from bottles of beer and swaying to the sound of the African dance music as they spill out of the open-air bar into a darkened side street on the edge of the Zambian crossroads town of Kapiri Mposhi.

In a little while, Carol will let one of the men buy her a beer and maybe dance with her for a while. Then they will leave and head off into the night towards a guest house she knows where they can hire a room. He will give her maybe 20,000 kwacha, a little less than £3. If she can fit in another couple of men during the day, she will have earned enough to settle the bill for the room and to buy herself a little food. It is not good money, even by Zambian standards, but for a 13-year-old orphaned by AIDS, with nowhere to live and no-one to pay for her schooling, it is the best she can hope for. Carol has been doing this since she was 11.

Across sub-Saharan Africa, AIDS has cut a swathe through an entire generation. It happened slowly, without anyone noticing for a while. By the time anyone realised the scale of the problem, it was already out of control. Whole families have gone, young parents contracting the disease and passing it on to their children. There are grandparents, those too old to be caught, trying to care for grandchildren whose parents are long dead.

AIDS may have slipped from the headlines in those parts of the world where people can afford medical treatment and where mass media campaigns have hammered home the safe sex message, but in rural Africa, where poverty is endemic and traditional beliefs and superstition hinder attempts to change the way people live, it has not gone away.

Zambia, like much of southern Africa, clings to traditional beliefs. When people began to die, some blamed it on witchcraft. They said the dead had been bewitched because they had a new cow or a new job, or a house that was newly thatched. Some of the truck drivers whose routes criss-cross the continent believe sleeping with a young girl brings good luck. They could not have been more wrong; along the truck routes, the disease spread.

Some husbands took second and third wives, polygamy being accepted in parts of Zambian society. Wives sometimes chose the new wife, to free them from the burden of childbirth. When a husband dies from the disease, many still believe the only way to purge his ghost is to sleep with his brother. And so the disease enters a new family, and the cycle starts again.

Zambia is also a very religious country. The intolerance of some religions towards contraception has hindered the safe-sex message, and a fatalism based on fervent belief in the will of God has done nothing to persuade AIDS victims to seek medical help. Across sub-Saharan Africa, it is estimated that 25 million children will lose one or both their parents by 2010. This part of the continent accounts for 70 per cent of the global figure for AIDS infections.

When the parents die, the children are left with nowhere to live and no money to pay for their food and education. Some are taken in by grandparents, who are equally incapable of supporting them. Many, like Carol, turn to the streets. Girls find they can live day to day by selling their bodies. Boys run away to the cities to beg and live rough on the streets. Some are picked up by older men, or widows looking for an energetic young man who can satisfy their needs.

Fragile and tiny, Carol sits sucking her thumb, spilling out her pathetic story – parents dead, nowhere to live, no means to pay for the rest of her schooling, friends who told her she could maybe make enough this way to live. She has been raped, she says, and beaten. The fear of AIDS is always there. She lives with a few friends, and when night falls, they head for the bars. Sometimes she tells the men about her life, and some promise they will take her back to school. But they always forget. It is a story all the girls in the bar can tell.

They all know the danger of AIDS, all use condoms, they say, but when the men don’t want to, what can they do? They all have their stories, of the men who dragged them off the streets, of the struggles in the bushes, of the inevitable rape, and the beatings.

It is a story repeated across Zambia, and across the continent. Yet the girls have not abandoned hope. There is another story they all tell, the story of how they dream of returning to school, passing their exams, starting a new life. But school costs money, and money is something they don’t have. Early education is free, but anyone hoping to go on into their teens must pay.

ON THE main drag, lorries trundle past the rundown concrete shop fronts. The drivers pull up to rest for the night before continuing their journeys thousands of miles across the continent. The girls sway up to the cabs and knock on the doors. Some are invited in. In the bars, the men are watching the girls. Precious, 20, and in a little striped dress, is working the crowd, looking for company. Hers is a story many of the girls could tell. When the government privatised the copper mines, many people lost their jobs, her father included. The family went back to their village, but with no money and no job, it was hard to look after the children. Her father died. Her mother died. No-one tests for AIDS, because it costs too much, but looking back it was probably responsible. It was hard to go on to the streets, but there was nothing else to do. All she wants to do is to go back to school, but there is never enough money.

Precious is scared of AIDS. She has friends who have it. She knows the odds are against her and there is no cure. She knows the symptoms, the hair loss, the diarrhoea, the weight loss. The girls drink with the men and get drunk and sometimes the men take them and force them to have sex. When the men have spent money on the girls, they think they are owed something. When that happens, there is no chance to use a condom.

The music is thumping out of the bar. The boys smell of drink. They cluster around the girls, laughing and joking, eyeing them up. They don’t worry about how young they are, they just want a good time. They fear the girls, they say, because the girls go from man to man in search of money. But after drinking beer, they lose control. They say they pay 15,000 kwacha. For that, they get 15 seconds, they say, and laugh. Sometimes they use condoms, sometimes they are so drunk they forget.

Joe Meda, confident in his black bandana and white top, has been drinking for hours. A farmer, he is in town to sell his produce. He has money in his pocket from the sale. His wife would kill him if she knew what he was doing, but there are times in his marriage when he is supposed to abstain from sex, maybe when the baby is too young, and he seeks out other women. His friend, Ngosa Lapolon, a 21-year-old trader, laughs as Joe looks sheepish. In his Luis Figo T shirt, he swigs from a bottle and interrupts Joe. They know the risk of AIDS but, he says, if they use a condom, it does not give the pleasure that they expect. Anyway, he knows he’ll be fine if he goes for the girls who look beautiful but not slim, because girls with AIDS are thin and look unwell.

The girls know that there are drugs that can help them, anti-retrovirals that can slow the advance of AIDS, but they are hopelessly scarce and impossibly expensive: to get them, the girls would have to take an HIV test and suffer the stigma of testing positive, coupled with the depression that comes with realising that they have the disease – but there are no drugs for those who cannot pay.

A lorry draws up at the side of the road outside the bar, its trailer stuffed with shoes. The driver climbs out and stretches. He will sleep on the shoes tonight, their rubber soles forming a comfortable bed. He has been driving these roads for 17 years, he says, leaving his wife to look after the children, sleeping at the roadside wherever he gets the chance. But he is not like the other men, he says. He would not invite a woman into his lorry; that could cost him his life. How can anyone know who the women have slept with before? And what of the money? A driver can earn 100,000 kwacha (GBP 12.50) for such a trip, but if he spends 80,000 on women along the way, what is left for his family when he gets home? What happens when he falls sick?

Not all men are like him, he says. They are dying because they cannot refrain; people lose their lives every day, because of ignorance, because they will not take advice. There are adverts on billboards along the roadsides and on radio and television advocating the use of condoms, but people do not listen. Along the roadside, girls move from cab to cab, laughing and chatting with the drivers. Men spill out of the bar, loud and drunk, arguing, pulling and pushing at each other, scrapping over the girls, who feign indifference but watch through the door.

Somewhere on the edge of town, Carol is teetering a little, her bottle of beer empty. She is looking for someone to buy her another drink, anyone at all.

Before long, she will be gone, they will all be gone, a lost generation destined to be wiped out by a disease they did not realise was among them until it was too late. As they walk off down the dusty main drag, the music fades away behind them, but in the guest houses and the lorry cabs and the brothels on the edge of town, the rhythm of the night goes on.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with *