Part 3: Africa Responds

Bereft of medicine and money, traditional cultures mobilize in a new way.

But for the moment, thousands of ordinary Africans are defying all odds to care for their sick, raise their orphans, and try to slow the virus's spread. If governments finally mobilize against this disease, they will find some of the best and most energetic AIDS strategies right under their noses.

And they might find something else. Traditionally, Africans relied on extended families and tight communities to weather adversity, but even before AIDS, colonialism, urbanization, and social atomization had weakened the sinews of African society. The epidemic threatens to snap them—but it could also have the opposite effect. "AIDS is horrible, but in times of great stress societies can either fall apart or come together," says Alan Whiteside, who studies the demographic impact of AIDS at South Africa's University of Natal. Noting how the American gay community built powerful institutions and a stronger culture, he says that "IGAC, with a little help, could be an example of building civil society in Africa."

There are few places where the difficulties of responding to AIDS are more daunting than here in Insiza, a flat, dry district of southern Zimbabwe punctuated by dramatic rock formations and dotted with imizi, rural homesteads composed of neatly ordered round huts. Villagers here are so poor that most don't bury their dead in coffins, but merely wrap them in blankets. At one funeral, near the start of Zimbabwe's winter, the grieving family was so destitute that, after lowering the body into the grave, they started removing the blanket from the corpse so their children wouldn't go cold. Stricken with pity and horror, IGAC's coordinator Japhet Gwebu gave the family a blanket.

To mobilize his community, Isaiah Ndlovu must rise at 3:45 a.m. and trudge 45 minutes in the dark to catch the only bus.
photo: Mark Schoofs
To mobilize his community, Isaiah Ndlovu must rise at 3:45 a.m. and trudge 45 minutes in the dark to catch the only bus.

Only about half of Insiza's population can read and write, and what schools there are often lack even furniture, forcing students to work on the floor. The district hospital is supposed to have five doctors, but on a recent visit, it had only one, and the operating theater was closed because the hospital had run out of anesthetics. Nurses are also in short supply—but not patients, who have poured in over and above capacity.

Frequent droughts cause starvation. The 1992 drought killed most of the cattle, which means that even though the rains were good this year many prime fields lay untilled because there are no beasts of burden to pull the plows. Nobody, of course, has tractors or automobiles. How many residents have electricity or running water? Fidres Manombe, chief executive officer of the district council, laughs at the question. "Oh, it's negligible," he says.

Back in the late 1980s, when a new disease began causing people to waste into skin-shrouded skeletons, most people in Insiza believed the affliction was caused by witchcraft. Only in 1994 did they learn the medical facts, and immediately a group of elders decided they needed to do something to care for the droves of sick people and the swelling number of orphans. But how to organize the villagers?

Homesteads are scattered far apart, yet throughout the district's 7500 square kilometers—an area larger than Delaware—there is only one paved road. Nobody has telephones. Isaiah Ndlovu, one of IGAC's founders and most active leaders, has never even heard of e-mail, but he sometimes sends messages by relay, villagers passing on his communiqué so that by the end of the day it has traveled across the vast farmland to its intended recipient—if someone hasn't misunderstood the message or forgotten it completely. So to mobilize his community, Ndlovu must visit homesteads one by one, and that's how he keeps the program going, checking in on the volunteers and the dying people they're caring for.

To any destination closer than 10 miles, Ndlovu just walks. When he has to catch the one and only bus that serves his village, the 56-year-old rises at 3:45 a.m. and trudges 45 minutes in the dark to the bus stop, an unmarked patch of grass by the unpaved main road. Delays of eight hours are not uncommon. "But," Ndlovu says, standing in a winter drizzle one morning when the bus was already long past due, "it's better for the bus to be late than you to be late for the bus."

Today, five years after its founding, IGAC has 500 active volunteers and at least another 500 who help out as needed. To put this in perspective, New York's largest AIDS organization, Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), had 500 home-care volunteers in 1994, just before new drugs lowered the death rate. With a budget exceeding $24 million, GMHC rewards its volunteers with parties and other perks. IGAC has an annual budget of less than $17,000, and volunteers, though they are dirt poor, are asked to pay dues. The volunteers also give directly to their patients, bringing tomatoes or soap, candles or ground maize, which Zimbabweans eat at virtually every meal. "It's not every time that we can bring something," explains Kelina Ncube, one of the volunteers. "We just give them some of whatever we have to eat that day."

All this giving takes its toll. "When we started it was easy going," says Ndlovu. "But as we go along, some are starting to say, 'We have contributed too much."' Indeed, at a meeting, one woman asks if she and the other volunteers can be compensated. Some of this may be bellyaching—"we have different characters," says Ndlovu, dryly—but most of the complaints stem from brute poverty. "We have to nurse sick people and handle food for them, so we need to wash with soap," he explains. "But soap is very, very expensive." In Zimbabwe, a bar costs the equivalent of 20 cents.

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