Rural women turn to pillow talk to combat HIV

ZVISHAVANE - It is deep down in the bush but this is where pillow talk rules the roost and sex has ceased being that dirty a word.

People living with HIV in Midlands Province’s deep rural areas from Gokwe to Mapirimira in Zvishavane are confessing to romping like they have not done in years —  thanks to a behaviour change programme they have taken to heart.

Falling mud houses make for bedrooms and women conservatively dressed in long dresses cover their heads with head wraps. Some sport apostolic sect garb, a sign of their faith.

Yet, this is where all the “dirty” talk resides. Locals say it helps them remain positive about the future.

“Fire condom nepakati masikati nemanheru” is the slogan doing the rounds among women and men as old as 60. It has become such a hymn that is buzzes throughout — at local business centres, community meetings and at church.

“There is nothing better than good sex to beat the spread of HIV,” says Maina Banda, the Zvishavane facilitator for the behaviour change programme while explaining how women are being empowered to keep the fire burning in the home to keep men from straying.

“Unprotected sex is a key driver so we have to unpack the whole concept of sex. Here, we have a subject that is taboo,” says Banda.

The feisty Banda, who has lived with HIV for the past 15 years, leads a community support group made up mainly of people living with HIV.

Its activities range from serious bedroom talk to self-empowerment programmes.

From a chastised group, they are fast turning into community heroes despite pushing the boundary with their explicit but constructive sex talk.

“People used to call us ‘maJehovah ndouyako’ to insinuate we are meeting our Maker soon. But now the entire community is full of envy,” says Sicelesile Nganga, a member of Batanai Support Group.

The group is part of a network of community groups which cash-starved Zimbabwe has successfully relied on to combat a deadly disease which wiped out communities during its early days.

Zimbabwe has for years struggled with funding, forcing the country to look at homegrown solutions that are attracting the attention of other African countries such as Uganda, once regarded as a model by Harare.

With a paltry $30 million coming through national coffers through the Aids Levy, taxed on the formally-employed, community-based groups are a large part of the matrix to beating HIV.

International HIV financing institution Global Fund, which has provided $500 million plus since 2001, finances the bulk of funding for HIV activities but officials admit it is hardly enough to achieve zero new infections.

Other funders such as the United States President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief have come in handy but they perk Zimbabwe down the ladder.

Less affected countries such as Ethiopia, which with a prevalence rate about 10 times lower than Zimbabwe, get much more under the programme.

This has forced Zimbabwe to rely on its own foot soldiers such as community support groups run by HIV focal persons and local community leaders who trudge long distances to visit the sick and organise people living with HIV for no pay.

The National Aids Council (Nac), a quasi-government body which coordinates HIV response strategies launched the community initiatives in 2001, pooling a critical mass of grassroots foot soldiers focussed on behaviour change and home-based care.

People like, Banda walk long through distances in bushy areas to visit and care for the sick, conduct public awareness programmes on safe sex.

Their efforts are making up for poor funding and hospital staff shortages and today the country boasts of having achieved an incredible decline in prevalence rates from 24,6 in 2004 and the current 15 percent.

And in the Midlands Province groups such as Batanai operating under the Midlands Aids Service Organisation have chosen to go for the radical to catch the attention of a conservative community coming to terms with the scourge.

Forget about the lurid lyrics on rap songs.

Here, a mix of ageing veterans and youthful ones still coming to terms with being diagnosed as HIV positive sing and talk raunchy stuff one would be forgiven for thinking they are porn stars.

At a meeting we attended, a dozen members of Batanai group dominated by women opened with a prayer — and then go into a sexually suggestive dance routine under searing heat.

The lyrics are too sexually explicit to publish in a family paper.

Ageing and young women living with HIV openly talk about their new lease of life, often making sure to emphasise that a rekindled flame between the sheets is keeping them going.

“Sex is not the problem. People simply have to learn about behaviour change. Safe sex is the bedrock and we are always drilling in the message that the condom is king,” says a Kennedy Nyama, the only male member of the group.

He says sex education focussing on behaviour change and self-empowerment programmes have renewed their lives.

It is not just sex talk here though.

The women make regular contributions to the group under a system known in vernacular as Mukando.

Each member contributes a sum every month and the money is used to invest in cattle rearing and poultry projects.

Members and the local community can borrow from the pool and pay back with interest.

“Local businessmen are our customers. They used to shun us but now they come to us when they need money to restock,” says Banda.

Officials such as Nac chief executive officer Tapuwa Magure say it is people like Banda who are the real heroes of Zimbabwe’s success story.

“Right now we are receiving a mission from Uganda specifically to learn how the Aids Levy and community groups are functioning, Tanzania has been here, Kenya, Zambia and Botswana. We are expecting Malawi and Namibia to visit to learn about our home grown solutions.

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