Wednesday, September 30, 2009

HIV, AIDS, and ARV in Africa

Last night my husband went to the Society of Malawi meeting. On this particular night there was a Malawian expert talking about HIV, AIDS, and ARV (Anti Retro Viral) drugs used to treat AIDS.

I have never known the difference between HIV and AIDS and always thought of it as one and the same. Last night the speaker clarified the difference: HIV is when the blood CD4 (proteins that make up the immune system) drop to 500 and AIDS is when CD4 drop to 200.
When a person gets HIV his CD4 just keep going down. As the sickness progresses the patient will get ailments like shingles and thrush and will experience weight loss. After the CD4 level drops all the way to 200 more serious sicknesses like TB and some forms of meningitis will occur. After that point the patient has less than a year left to live. Right now in Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi, most of the beds are taken up with the AIDS patients. If a patient comes in with Malaria he or she is simply given outpatient treatment and sent home.

The very first ARV drugs could add about a year to one’s life and the patient would have to take 20 to 30 tablets daily. Later on new drugs came that reduced the amount of drugs to 3 tablets per day and eventually to 1 tablet that contained 3 different types of medicines in it. There are about 22 ARV drugs in the world. In Malawi there are 4 to 5 ARV drugs that are available to patients for free. Those drugs are donated for free by different aid organizations. Also in private clinics 4 to 5 other types of drug are available for sale. Why so many? Because AIDS has different strains and they require different drugs to combat them. There are also different levels of toxicity in the drugs and they can have different side effects. Five percent of patients taking these drugs have an adverse reaction. In Western countries these kinds of medicines will not be used but Africa will gladly take anything it can get. The Malawi government decided that it would be better for 5% of infected people to get this reaction than for 100% to have no hope at all. One common side effect is skin rash that makes patients look as if they had been burned.
The new ARVs can add decades to the patient’s life if taken properly. People do not realize that if they start on ARVs they have to take the complete course of medication at the appropriate time. AIDS can build up resistance to the drug if the treatment is interrupted or administered incorrectly. In Malawi, out of 1 million infected people only 200,000 are receiving ARVs. One of the reasons is that the supply of ARVs does not come in consistently. Sometimes when the hospitals run out there are periods of 3 to 4 months when there are no drugs available.

Another important fact is that some may test negative for HIV after a period on ARVs, but this does not always mean that the patient is cured. The virus stores itself in one’s brain, liver, or lymph nodes and can return later should the patient stop taking regular treatment.

Some of the people in the Western countries think that since ARV drugs are so available, AIDS is not such a serious threat any more. But they need to realize that AIDS is still a major killer all over the world. Right now scientists are trying to find a cure that will heal people from AIDS completely and make this pandemic history!

Monday, September 28, 2009

My husband grew up in Malawi and always wanted to come back to live here again. When we came back in 2003 he had been gone for 15 years. The first thing he noticed upon his return was how so many trees had been cut down. We live very close to Zomba Mountain, one of the most beautiful places in Malawi. In the six years we have been here I have seen it go from lush, jungle like forest, to something that looks like a plucked chicken. One of the reasons for such rapid deforestation is the making of charcoal.

I found this story on BBC Africa and it describes how Africa’s charcoal burning problem contributing to the global warming. Andrew Simms from the New Economics Foundation explains that “Global warming means that many dry areas are going to get drier and wet areas are going to get wetter." That means that the African dry countries like Kenya, Botswana, Namibia, and more, will get even drier. Most of the people on this continent depend on their gardens for the supply of food for their families. Famine will be even more so common. It is estimated that by the end of this century 182 million people in Africa will die as a consequence of climate change.

Right now Africa losses it’s forest twice as fast as the rest of the world. “Once upon a time, Africa boasted seven million square kilometers of forest but a third of that has been lost - most of it to charcoal.” “Uganda has lost half of it’s forest in the last 30 years. One of the main reasons for such a decrease of forested area is the mass production of charcoal that is used for cooking.” People are producing it as a way to make a little extra money. In Uganda it is reported that the charcoal business “yields 20,000 jobs and generates more $20 million in income every year. In Kenya it is 10 times that figure.” About 20,000 bags of charcoal enter the Tanzanian capital Dar-es-Salaam every 24 hours.

Another reason for such rapid deforestation is that only 7.5% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population has access to electricity. Wood and charcoal are the only sources of energy and if something does not change, it may stay that way for ages. Some people are trying to find alternative methods of producing energy. “To the west of Nairobi, Cheryl Mvula of the Tribal Voice consultancy has introduced the extraordinary Cow Dung Fuel Initiative to counter deforestation in the Mara Triangle of Kenya's Masai Mara.” This fuel is made of the cow dung mixed with waste paper and water and shaped into briquettes. “Since the project's inception in March 2009, firewood collection has reduced by 75% in the five villages where the scheme has been piloted.” Other people are trying to use alternate sources of fuel like sawdust, corn cobs, and even banana peel for their fires.

African leaders need to pay closer attention to what is happening to the forest and encourage people to replant the trees they cut down. It is sad when you see a tree cut down but when it is also a fruit tree it takes away the food source as well. If an effective solution is not implemented soon, Africa faces a bleak future indeed!

Four wives

Can you imagine getting married to four women at the same time?! I am a woman, and I remember my wedding day as one of the happiest days of my life. But I bet my husband remembers it a bit differently: me wanting everything to be perfect, my mom stressing over food at the reception, my dad making sure that the priest got to church on time. I am sure I was not the most lovable person on that day and I’m glad that Mark made it through it. Now, imagine the grumpy bride and annoying in-laws times four!

But just the very thing happened is South Africa. Zulu businessman Milton Mbele, 44, married four women between the ages of 22 and 35. Polygamy is a common thing in the Kwa-Zulu Natal province of South Africa but only the first wife is legally recognized. Thobile Vilakazi, Zenele Langa, Baqinisile Mdlolo, and Smangele Cele all know each other and get along. “We don't see anything unusual about our marriage. We agreed to marry him at the same time because we love him.” In total, Mr. Mbele paid 33 cows as a dowry payment. “He paid 10 cows for Ms Vilakazi, seven for Ms Langa and eight each for Ms Mdlolo and Ms Cele, reports the Sowetan newspaper.” "’Marrying many wives is our culture,’ Mr. Mbele said. ‘However, what is different is to marry all of them at once. I am doing this because I love all these women.’” Mike Dladla says that it is better to marry more than one wife than to be monogamous and cheat all the time.

I am just wondering what all of these women think. What woman in her right mind would want to share her husband with three other women! How did Mr. Mbele decide which of the wives will have the actual marriage certificate? Didn’t he think it will create resentment between them? And what of Mr. Dladla’s comment that men in monogamous marriages are tempted to cheat? What makes him so sure that the four wives will keep Mr. Mbele happy? There is polygamy among the Tumbuka tribe in the north of Malawi. Older wives resent younger wives. Younger wives feel self important and put down the older wives. And when the husband dies there can be a bitter dispute between the children over the inheritance. And here is the worst thing about marrying four women, nagging times four!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

South African rapist: “Forgive me”

Again, this story comes from BBC Africa. As I was looking through this website I noticed a headline stating that burglaries and sex crimes are on increase in South Africa. There were several corresponding stories to go with the article and I picked this one for today’s post.
Dumisani Rebombo talks about raping a girl in his village when he was 15. He was pressured by his “friends” to teach this girl a lesson because she refused to go out with any of the guys. Dumisani was very scared and shaking like a leaf so his friends told him to smoke some marijuana and drink some beer to calm his nerves. After the rape was done he was haunted by what he had done and tried to avoid this girl as much as possible. Later on he moved away from his village in the Limpopo Province and went to live in the city. As time went by he thought less and less about the incident. After a while he got a job with an NGO (Non-Government Organization), where he worked with unemployed mothers. Every time they reported an incident of abuse he thought about what he had done, “It was as if every time I heard of a negative act by a man, I was forced to go back to my own incident.” After living for years with this guilt pressing down on him and not being able to take it anymore, Dumisani decided to return to his village and ask this woman for forgiveness. By doing so he was taking a risk of being thrown into jail if she decided to press charges. But it was a risk he was willing to take. At first this woman did not recognize him. But when he went on to tell her who he was and what he had done to her, he asked her to forgive him. She broke down and cried. She informed him that since the time he raped her she was raped two more times and now she often cringes when her husband touches her. She still was not able to tell him what had happened to her. “Finally, she said that she forgave me, and thought that I had meant well with all that I had said.” Now Dumisani works with young men in trying to prevent them from raping women and “above all, to grow up respecting girls.”

Like I said in the beginning of my post, sex crimes are on a sharp rise in South Africa! Here is an excerpt from another article entitled “Big jump in S Africa sex offences” on the BBC website: “Earlier this year, a survey in parts of South Africa reported that one in four men admitted to having forced a woman to have sex against her will.” I respect Dumisani for being man enough to go to this woman and ask her to forgive him under the threat of even going to jail. Some of you may not agree and say that “rape is still rape” and that he should rot in jail for what he has done. But look at what he has done with his life! He learned from his mistakes and is now trying to teach other young men not to repeat them!

“Nyau- the Heart of Chewa Identity”

“The Nyau is a secret association of dancers” who use “masks and animal structures” it “exists mainly among Chewa.” “It is a dance of grass animals that” are “believed to be” reincarnation “of the dead.” “Nyau is a secret society whose membership is selective and restricted. Originally only men of mature age could be members of the Nyau society*, and the introduction of boys into the Nyau was only a policy to counteract the influence of the mission- schools**.”

I have seen these grass animals carried on the road before but never had a camera to take a picture. It is the kind of sight one would expect when he or she comes to Africa: men dressed in costumes dancing one of their “big dances” (gule wamkulu.) I have also seen men running along the road dressed in sack cloth and a mask over their heads. They are the recruiters and can be dangerous because some of them may carry a panga knife with them. This religion is something that has fascinated me from the first time I ever saw one of these men and their structures.

Last night I had two Malawian couples over for dinner. Among them was Chikalipo, a man who grew up in the central region of Malawi and knew about Nyau. I asked Chikalipo to tell me something about this religion and reluctantly he told me this story.

One day Chikalipo and his friends were going to school. Among his friends was one of his cousins. One of the Nyau runners came up to them and started asking them if they knew anything about his religion. He did this to see if the boys had ever been to one of Nyau initiations. They are looking for boys between the ages of 13 to 15 to teach them about this religion. For in their eyes “A man who does not belong to the Nyau society is ‘like a small child who does not know anything at all’ (ngati mwana wamng’ono wosadziwa chili chose.)” If the boys show that they have no idea of what he is talking about, he grabs them and then drags them off to the meeting against their will. The same thing happened on this particular occasion. The children scattered and the man was able to grab Chikalipo’s cousin and drag him off to dambo, a grass hut in the middle of a graveyard where the meeting is held. The graveyard is something extremely terrifying to Malawian villagers who still believe in spirits. When all of the boys were gathered together they are teased and bullied from one to two weeks and then taught about Nyau ways for another week. After all of this they are released to go back home. This time, however, other children ran back to the village and told the boy’s parents what had happened. The parents grabbed some torches, went to the graveyard, and burned the dambo to get their son back!

There is so much information about Nyau that can be discussed in my blog, but I decided to share this story with you because it is something that actually happened.

* Nyau society- is a part of Malawi traditional religion.
** Mission-schools- the schools that teach with a Christian message.

Exerts are use from “Chewa Traditional Religion” by J.W.M. Van Breugel.

Zimbabwe farmers: “I’m not giving up”

I read this article on BBC Africa. It is about white farmers who have lived and owned farms in Zimbabwe for generations. In this article Catherine Meredith describes an incident that happened on her farm on February 6, 2009. On this particular day she was away in South Africa to visit her son and her husband was alone on the farm. A group of 30 young men showed up and told him that his farm was now taken away from him and given to some Zimbabwean businessman. The businessman is a member of the ruling party under President Mugabe. Catherine and her husband had to go to Harare, capital of Zimbabwe, to obtain the court order for eviction. Some of the squatters have not left as of yet and are “drinking and smoking pot quite a bit” on their land. The Merediths live in constant fear that these young men might turn violent. The police are no help because they say they do not have enough manpower. Catherine and her husband took a financial loss as “The man who ordered the crowd to seize our land has allowed his cattle to walk through our maize fields. This has partly destroyed our crops.” But at the same time they have high hopes. “We strongly believe that change is coming to Zimbabwe. My feeling is that we are very near the end of these troubles. We have a new prime minister now. I'm 100% confident that in five years' time, I'll still be living on this farm.”

I got to meet a white Zimbabwean woman once. She and her husband had to leave Zimbabwe with just what they could carry in their hands. Their farm and bank account were taken away from them by the government and they had nowhere else to go. Both of their families have been in Zimbabwe for generations and now they feel lost. They are white on the outside but as African on the inside as anyone else from Africa.

I read this story and feel so blessed not to be kicked off my land at the whim of a rich businessman who fancies what I own. Since Mugabe took over in 1980, countless white-owned farms have been taken away. But instead of developing the land and growing the crops, the squatters leave the fields uncultivated. The people who were working on those farms previously are left with no jobs. Zimbabwe went from being one of the richest countries in Africa to one facing famine every year. Half the time there is nothing to buy in the stores even if you have money; only empty shelves remain. The currency has devaluated tens of millions of percent. One would have to have a suitcase full of money to buy a single loaf of bread. A bus fare is 50 US cents or three trillion Zimbabwe dollars. In fact, right now Zimbabwe is using US Dollars and South African Rand to buy and sell goods. Now after all of the years of corruption there is new dawn in Zimbabwe in the form of Morgan Tsvangirai, their new Prime Minister. White farmers like the Merediths hope that unlike Mugabe, he will let everyone live in peace!

Friday, September 18, 2009


The topic for this post comes from a question that one of our visitors asked us one day at the dinner table, “How do Malawi women feel about being dominated by their men?”

A woman in Malawi is not much more than just a worker. When a boy gets to be of marriage age he will pick out a strong wife who will work hard at home and in the garden and will bear him lots of strong children. Women clean, cook, hoe in the garden, bring water from a distant well, and take care of the children all day long. It is not uncommon to see a couple walking on the road with the man empty handed while his wife is toting a baby tied to her back and a 50 lb bag of corn on her head.

What shocks our visitors the most when they first come to Malawi is that the hostess does not eat at the table with her husband. She will be eating outside on the mat with her children. When guests arrive to her hut she will give up her seat in the guest’s favor and sit on the floor. Her husband gets to remain at the table.

It is pretty shocking for someone coming to Malawi for the first time. But it is not all that bad! A lot of times on the surface there are a lot of traditions that the woman has to show to the visitors. But when the visitors have gone she will become more on equal terms with her husband and some of the husbands are a little afraid of their wives!

We get uncomfortable when we do not understand another culture but Malawians have their own value system, just like we our own. Thousands of years of Malawi culture cannot change in a day! It will happen little by little and has to first come from the inside rather than being imposed by outsiders like us!

Leaky condoms

I found this article on BBC Africa. It is about the “weakness” of the UK made condoms that are sold in Kenya. After the Kenyan government tested these condoms they found that they leak. The Kenya government gives out 160 million condoms each year to prevent people from transmitting HIV. It is reported that “Almost 7% of the adult population are said to be living with HIV.” The head of the HIV/AIDS control program said, "Those people who are using this particular brand of condoms are going to be very worried."

This is such a sad story. It kind of reminds me of an incident a friend of my told me when he was working with one of the AIDS organizations. There was a shipment of condoms that came in and the instructions on how to use them were stapled to the condoms themselves!

But it is not a laughing matter. AIDS in Africa is growing like a wild fire! The people that suffer the most from this pandemic are partners of promiscuous spouses and their orphaned children. People infected with this deadly disease are shunned by their friends and family. Why gamble with your life and rely on something as undependable as a condom?

The best way to protect oneself is abstinence. Former President Bush may have made himself unpopular by recognizing this, but he was right!

This picture was taken in Zambia near Kalomo.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

SA pigeon “faster than broadband”

Tonight was one of the rare nights that I get to watch TV. I came into the living room as my husband was watching BBC World News. One story made me pay closer attention. It was about Winston the pigeon delivering a message faster than broadband.

I had to laugh. You see, I am on African broadband and I have grief with it most of the time! Sometimes it takes 1 hour to attach a file to my letter. Sometimes nothing happens at all!

I guess I might have to take MSSU internet classes through “pigeon” for it to work faster!

The Warm Heart of Africa

Malawi is one of the warmest countries in Africa. The people here are nice and very hospitable. When they invite someone to their house they bring out their very best. If one has to spend the night in their hut, they give up their bed in favor of their guest.
A car accident I experienced in Malawi on May 5, 2007, demonstrates their warmth.
When we first arrived in Malawi in 2003, our white friends told us that if we hit someone on the road, not to stop and go straight to the nearest police station. The reason was that a mob could take vengeance on the driver right then and there. I always remembered the advice but on the day of the accident my instictual reactions took over.
The chances of having an accident are extremely high here. We have to share the road with pedestrians, bikes, goat, chickens, pigs, and cows, all the time swerving all over the road to try to avoid potholes the size of Grand Cannon.
To make this story easier to understand I will give the 3 Malawian men in it different names.
On this particular day I was going into town to meet a friend of mine. As I was coming down the hill, I saw Mavuto on a bike with a huge bag of corn somehow fitted on the rear carrier. He started swerving some and I honked to warn him that I was coming. For safer measure I moved over to the other lane to give him plenty of space. But at the very moment I caught up with him, his bag broke loose and he swerved right in front of my wheels. I slammed into him. Almost instantly my windshield lay in pieces on the ground next to the spilled corn. Mavuto was in the ditch face down and not moving. I had this sick feeling wash over me, “I KILLED A MAN!!!” All my thoughts of leaving were gone. I ran up to him to check his pulse and to my relief he was still alive. Lifting him was useless for he was at least 200 lb of pure muscle. At the same time a crowd started gathering around me. Two men, Pacharu and Moster, ran up and helped me drag Mavuto into the car to take him to the hospital. At that point I could not hold my tears back and just wept with relief that Mavuto was alive. Not knowing why I was crying, Pacharu took my hand and held it all the way to Zomba repeating, “Madam, he is alive! Madam, he is sitting! He is ok!” In the end Mavuto only had one cut on his elbow where he had taken out my windshield. His bike was OK. Although the accident was not my fault, I felt so sorry for him that I reimbursed him for his corn.
The moral of this story is that you should not believe the worst about people. I count Pacharu and Moster my saving angels. They helped me with my language barrier and stayed with me while I was questioned by the police. I believe that Malawian people are the warmest and kindest people that there are!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Bats, it’s what’s for dinner!

I like going to Zomba market to shop for fruits and vegetables. I love the way everything looks and smells and all of the variety of produce I can get there. The best part about going to the market is that it makes me feel at home. In Ukraine there are outdoor markets, just like here.

Today, however, I was offered a special treat that I have seen only one time before in my six years in Malawi. It happened when I was buying green beans from one of the ladies. A young man of about twenty came up to me holding a bowl full of something. At first sight the things that he was selling looked like newborn fried and skinned chicks. But that was until I saw the remnants of the bat wings attached to the little bodies. Yes, he was selling fried bats for 10 cents each! He even had a little packet of salt so each customer could season his bat to his liking!

So now if you do not feel like eating mice you can always opt out for a bat! And this time they did smell just like chicken!