ESIDUBWINI, South Africa—Thandiwe Mwandla can't give her sugar cane away these days, much less sell it. The same goes for her sweet bananas and corn and the hard little peaches that grow in her garden. The fruit has AIDS, people say.
Switching from farmer to tailor, Mwandla, 45, a resourceful and stubborn woman, has tried sewing dozens of bright new skirts and aprons to sell. Nobody buys them. They, too, neighbors say, carry the killer disease.More recently, she trudged to the local helath clinic and cajoled the doctors there into paying her a modest stipend to teach AIDS awareness courses. At the designated times, however, the classroom stands empty. Like her fruit and clothing, Mwandla is shunned. And her crime isn't simply that she is HIV positive.
"People die here every week from AIDS, but we pretend not to notice," said the mother of five, whose electrician husband dies of AIDS in 1994, leaving her with no means of support. "My crime is that I've told people I have HIV. That has made me an outcast."
Neighbors now walk a broad circle around her property, she said. Others have warned her not to visit their homes. Sitting in a crumbling tin-roofed house she can no longer afford to repair, she summed up the schizophrenic world of AIDS-plagued Esidubwini.
"We get sick and we get poorer," she said bitterly, "and we die lying to ourselves."
Staring into the abyss of an incomprehensibly brutal epidemic, it is plain how the 23 million people who live with HIV in Africa can drift easily into numbing fatalism, or a fierce, hardening shell of denial.
Nearly 20 years after it roared out of the continent's jungles, the savage virus that goes by many oblique names here--"that other thing," they call it in Zimbabwe; "white man's disease" is its delusional nickname in Gabon--has wrecked decades of health and welfare gains and turned optimistic predictions about a new, robust African Century into a cruel joke.
According to a United Nations report released this month, Africa's AIDS catastrophe is not only unchecked but, chillingly, also accelerating even as the death rate drops in rich countries thanks to expensive drug therapies. The continent already is home to almost 70 percent of the world's HIV-positive people, experts note, and that bleak lead is only likely to widen in the next century.
AIDS is a democratic killer in Africa. Unlike in the West, it is not associated with urban and gay populations. Spread from husband to wife, through prostitutes or teenage sex, it burns through the rural communities where most Africans live. For the first time in the history of the pandemic, more women than men are infected; hundreds of thousands of African babies are born with HIV.
13 million deaths
A staggering 13 million Africans have died from AIDS, or 90 percent of global death toll. Five years from now that number will breach 20 million, a figure surpassing the wholesale die-off in medieval Europe at the height of the bubonic plague.
Yet as numbingly high as these numbers may be, they cannot begin to show how an obscure monkey virus that managed to jump to human beings, possibly when a hunter gutted an infected chimpanzee in the forests of Cameroon decades ago, is unraveling the fabric of entire societies and threatening to bring Africa's economy to its knees.
Fields in Zimbabwe, for example, stand untilled because tens of thousands of farmers are enfeebled by HIV, which infects a quarter of the total population. So many adults have died in the AIDS hot zones of East and southern Africa that some villages are turning into dazed outposts of orphans. In the United States, by contrast, the national incidence rate is only a fraction of 1 percent.
The impact on African business is incalculable. Some experts predict that agriculture, the pillar of most African economies, may have to shift slowly away from lucrative, labor-intensive export crops such as coffee due to a lack of workers. An oil refinery in Zambia recently bankrupted itself with the AIDS-related costs of workers' medical care and burial fees.
And in South Africa, where a staggering 45 percent of the country's mine workers may carry the virus, the outlay for health benefits for ailing employees is expected to more than double by 2005.
Culturally, the disease is eating away at the famous safety net provided by Africa's extended family system. There are simply too many victims to cope.
Beleaguered presidents, faced with massive diversions of resources to AIDS, have pushed unenforceable laws against long-held tribal practices such as wife inheritance and clan "uncles" who initiate girls into sex.
The Zulus in South Africa even have revived long-forgotten practices such as virginity testing to stanch horrific 30 percent HIV prevalence rates in Kwazulu-Natal.