AIDS, AIDS, AIDS!
Have one partner
Practice safe sex
Do not share razors and needles
Teenagers, say no before marriage!
I was only eight years old when I recited this poem for a function at my primary school. I had an idea of what AIDS was, but I was so young that there was still one word that I didn’t understand in that poem. Now I’m older, and I understand even the statistics. The statistics do say much, but they do not tell the complete story. That little boy reciting the poem also has seven hundred and sixteen words to say.
For some reason, Southern Africa is the worst affected region in the world. Here, the prevalence rate (the percentage of people in the 15-49 age group living with HIV, the virus which causes AIDS) has been as high as 30%. Zimbabwe’s prevalence rate was 27% a year before I recited my poem. Sixteen years later, the prevalence rate has dropped to 15%. It is still high, but Zimbabwe’s fight against AIDS is one of the biggest success stories in the region.
The prevalence rate fell for two reasons. Firstly, there was an increase in the number of AIDS-related deaths, which peaked between 2000 and 2005. Secondly, there was a significant reduction in the number of new infections. The death rate has since declined mostly due to Anti-Retroviral Treatment (ART) and a lower incidence rate. The dramatic decline in new infections has continued, and has caught the eye of researchers. Some of these researchers (notably from Harvard University and Imperial College) have found that behavioral change has been the major driver in this decline. This was a result of the massive AIDS campaign that Zimbabwe adopted. When I recited that poem in 1998, I was a tiny part of an extensive national campaign against HIV/AIDS.
I was too young to understand the whole campaign. Not even the films from the early nineties, which usually had AIDS themes running though them. Zimbabwean classics such as Everyone’s Child (1995) even addressed the pandemic directly. While I’d been too young to understand these early nineties films, I was already directing my own ‘films’ by the early 2000’s. At that time it seemed easy to create and direct an AIDS-themed sketch at the age of 12 and then show it to the whole community on AIDS Awareness Day. That is how serious the AIDS campaign was in Zimbabwe. Big filmmakers such as Tsitsi Dangarembga and 12-year-old primary school sketch directors were all in the fight.
That was not all. When I went home, I saw it in the soapies. Studio 263, a popular series at the time, had AIDS as one of its main themes. The premise was simple. A guy lived a risky life, sleeping around a lot. In the end his risky life led to AIDS. My drama sketch, a much lower budget production, had the same premise. Only in mine it was a girl that led a risky life. And her name was Sazini, which means “What do we know?” Zimbabwe has tried hard to help everyone know. In biology classes in schools. In public meetings. On National AIDS Awareness Day. On giant billboards with messages on safer behavior. Even in churches. The alphabet was not spared either. ‘ABC’ meant Abstinence, Be Faithful, Condomise in Zimbabwe. The campaign was really far-reaching.
Besides just warning people about the risks, the campaign has taken a very important additional step. This step has been to combat the stigmatization of people living with AIDS. The country has thankfully been moving from vilifying victims of the condition to caring for them. After all, a 15% prevalence rate is still pretty high, and most people in Zimbabwe know someone who is affected. It’s not just about the infected. It’s also about the affected. In fact, “everyone is affected,” says one of the campaign slogans.
The fight continues. People continue to learn more and to do more. The message lives on, even through poems recited by eight-year-olds. Everyone can do more, and everyone can learn more. I, too, have learned more. I also finally understand the word I couldn’t figure out in that poem that I recited when I was eight. “Teenagers” simply refers to people who are aged between thirteen and nineteen (inclusive).