Saturday, 4 April 2009

aids in botswana and namibia

I had checked the map in the hotel room before we left, so I was adamant that we were on the right route, even when the tarmac abruptly morphed into the familiar dirt track of the last couple of weeks.

An hour later we were still on the same monotonous straight road. We had come across only one other vehicle and the road seemed endless, the landscape unchanged for almost 100 kilometres. Eventually we came to an agricultural checkpoint (foot and mouth disease controlled zone) where the guard, and then confirmation on a second look at the map, told us we were headed in the wrong direction – not northwest to Maun but northeast towards the border with Zimbabwe.

Botswana may be larger than France but, as the map clearly illustrates, you can count the number of roads on both hands, and the tarmac-ked ones almost on one hand. It still manages to amaze me that in a country this size, Botswana has a population of less than two million. It is so sparse that petrol stations (there are only about a dozen in the whole country, meaning that every car journey has to be carefully planned accordingly) and notable Baobab trees are marked on national maps.

For the most part you won’t find here the parched earth and huddles of starving Africans clich├ęs of Africa. But the contradictions are many and do not sit easy.

Botswana is one of the most politically stable African nations. The diamond finds of 1967 turned it into a success story and one of the most economically stable countries in Africa almost overnight. Since independence in 1996, Botswana has had one of the fastest growth rates in per capita income in the world. After mining, tourism is Botswana’s biggest source of income. The stunning Okavango delta in the north provides some of the most spectacular wildlife viewing opportunities on the continent.

Despite all of its assets, Botswana has only recently been overtaken by Swaziland as having the highest AIDS population in the world. Life expectancy is currently at 33 and expected to fall to 27 by the year 2010. Approximately 70% of Botswana is desert and despite the statistics, the majority of the population live in isolation, farming the poor soil.

Across the border in Namibia, the contradictions are greater still. The first thing ones notices after Botswana is the infrastructure. Roads are comparatively abundant, in the most part, tarmacked and in good condition.

An ex-German colony, Namibia plays its cards right; tourism is huge. Cafes, boutique shops selling African curios, fast-food restaurants and pristine shopping malls and state-of-the-art private hospitals service most towns. But it doesn’t take long to scrape beneath the surface and discover an altogether different side.

My boyfriend and I had notched up an impressive 5,000 kilometres on our one way Honda Civic rental, from Johannesburg, through Botswana to the glitzy tourist seaside town of Swakopmund; and before we returned it we decided it deserved, or perhaps needed, a quick once over at the local garage.

Dave, a South African, had been in Namibia for nearly 13 years where he ran a successful car mechanics business. On the desk in his office sat the obligatory framed photos of the wife and kids, and another of the family cat. As the payment was being negotiated my attention was drawn to the photograph on the wall, the only other image in the room.                  

Taken in 2001 it showed Dave with about 12 other colleagues. Going through each, Dave explained how he and the only other white man in the photo was HIV free; and out of the remaining, all black, one had AIDS and all the others were dead. All had died from AIDS. 

Currently the World Health Organisation estimates one on seven Namibians are infected with AIDS with the number of those infected with the HIV virus feared to be a lot higher. In Botswana the figure is one in six. Dave had an even bleaker take on the situation, and it’s not surprising when he has had to completely replace his workforce over the last few years.

What soon became clear talking to Dave, and others we met on our travels, is that the African psyche still has a long way to go in addressing AIDS. Take Jacob Zuma for example, South Africa’s leading contender in the next presidential elections who is it openly known thinks a shower after unprotected sex will protect you from the virus.

According to Dave the statistics will get worse before they get better. Namibia’s and Botswana’s proximity to and history with South Africa means that many of the ideologies at the height of the apartheid rubbed off on their neighbours. Possibly as a result, one of the battles in beating AIDS has long been said that Blacks see pressure from the West as a way of ‘controlling and minimising the Black population.’ Death certificates rarely state AIDS as the cause of death, liver failure, pneumonia, anything but the underlying cause.

 Another problem, which had never occurred to me, is tourists contracting HIV and taking it back home to the West. The next day we returned our car and headed to the beach. A beautiful, toned and trendy local guy who had obviously got it on with one of them the night before joined two English girls sunbathing nearby. According to statistics, he was likely to be infected. I couldn’t help staring at them, wondering. Had this girl slept with him? Had they used protection? Did she know of the risks? 

For all its assets and status as two of Africa’s richest nations; both Namibia and Botswana still have mountains to cross in defeating AIDS, maintaining their position on the African stage and competing on the world one. In the growing economic depression, I fear for the future of these two beautiful countries.






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