Part 3: Africa Responds

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

Tall, upright Ezekiel Sibanda is the sobuku, or headman, of one of Insiza's villages, and he says IGAC has set a precedent. Women have banded together to weave grass mats and sell them, sharing the profit and giving a little to the needy. Another group is doing the same thing raising chickens, still another has started a garden, and a youth group is making bricks. Such communal endeavors didn't exist before IGAC, Sibanda says. "People were not as giving. IGAC has brought us together."

And it has done so in a manner that harks back to "what our traditional communities used to be," says Marowa of the national AIDS program. Precolonial African civilizations were often organized in smaller, more communitarian units than European nation-states. "Indeed, the most distinctively African contribution to human history," writes John Reader in his highly acclaimed book, Africa: A Biography of the Continent, "has been precisely the civilized art of living fairly peaceably together not in states." As Kaleeba explains, "While the state exists, the primary responsibility lies within my family, neighbors, and community. No one has written that law, but it is passed on and understood."

Traditional African societies tended to be flexible networks where individual gain at the expense of the community was taboo—virtually the opposite of capitalism. This was no utopia, but rather an adaptation to Africa's harsh realities. The continent has always been underpopulated, so communities needed every able body, and needed them to give to the larger society. Africa's communal civilizations, Reader maintains, evolved to ensure "survival in a hostile environment of impoverished soils, fickle climate, hordes of pests, and a more numerous variety of disease-bearing parasites than anywhere else on earth."

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.

IGAC's response to AIDS, then, is a reclamation of the age-old ways that enabled African communities to withstand previous scourges. The selflessness of the volunteers springs from deeply ingrained roles that were weakened but not broken by colonialism. The money-making projects are adaptations of those traditions to the present crisis, as is the frank talk about sex in IGAC's new youth program, which hands out condoms and warns girls away from "sugar daddies."

Still, poverty shadows these people too closely to consider IGAC's future secure. Many of the organization's goats, for example, died in an epidemic of their own; IGAC, of course, couldn't afford medicine to treat them. Another drought could finish off the herd, wither the communal gardens, and sap the community's spirit. And, of course, there is the relentless tide of AIDS.

Isaiah Ndlovu is walking with his volunteers on their way to visit another stricken family. Do the endless deaths make him frustrated or angry? "No," he says, "not at all. We have accepted it and when you accept it, it becomes ordinary life. Okay, death is here. But let's care for the sick and the orphans. To me it's just that simple."

Huddled in blankets in her hut, Tabeth Nkomo knows she and her husband are both dying, knows her aged mother is already too feeble to till the fields, and knows that her four children will soon be orphans. "I'm afraid for my last-born," she says. "He's too small to fetch water and firewood." So the biggest comfort that IGAC gives her is not bringing food or washing her frail body but the way they look after her children, cooking for them and disciplining them when they go astray. "They help when I'm alive," she says, "so I trust they will still help them when I go."

Research intern: Jason Schwartzberg

Next: The Virus, Past and Future

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