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BOTSWANA: Focus on new hope in the old shebeens

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]


An AIDS awareness skit by a community theatre group in Old Naledi

GABORONE, 6 September (PLUSNEWS) - It's a tough neighbourhood, Old Naledi. Gaborone's largest and oldest township appears peaceful in daylight. Barefoot children play on the dirt road. Women sell small heaps of tomatoes. Young men hang around the tuckshops.

Come dusk, Old Naledi shows another face. As first port of call for new arrivals to the capital, Old Naledi shelters all kinds of people, from job-seeking rural Batswana to Zimbabwean border jumpers, from the lawfully employed to lots of unemployed.

Poverty is rife in Old Naledi. In spite of Botswana's impressive gains in health and education since independence, half of its people live in poverty. Income inequality is among the world's highest. The poorest 40 percent receive 12 percent of national income, while the richest 20 percent receive nearly 60 percent.

On a Saturday night, the bars and shebeens of Old Naledi are exploding with music, booze, dagga [marijuana] and sex.

Alcohol abuse is widespread in Botswana. In August, the kgosis (members of the House of Chiefs) called for a curb on sales of chibuku, a traditional beer. They fear alcohol is tearing apart the social fabric.

So does Ndanji Lesetedi, 19. A heavy drinker since age 14, who got plastered every other day, he quit last year.

Today he is a neat, athletic accounting student with a winning smile and a mission: to persuade his friends and neighbours that AIDS exists and a healthy lifestyle can prevent it

"The reality is that, with no recreation or sports facilities, youth spends all day drinking in bars," he said. "My generation lacks direction. All we know is poverty, AIDS and substance abuse."

Botswana has the world's highest HIV prevalence rate, with nearly 40 percent of people aged 15-49 infected. In the towns of Francistown and Selebi-Phikwe, infection rates have reached 50 percent and over.

Worryingly, HIV prevalence among youth aged 15-24 decreased briefly in the late 1990s but is rising again. Half of new infections occur among young people. Girls' infection rates are three times higher than boys.

A recent survey found that one-quarter of young men deny that AIDS exists. Only half of those aged 10-14 are aware of HIV. Many youth do not know the disease progression from HIV to AIDS, or that a healthy looking person can carry the virus.

Lesetedi has high hopes that a new project will change this grim picture.

The Urban Youth Project tries to help those most at risk - the overlapping groups of unemployed youth, street children, orphans and sex workers - to make safer, healthier choices about sex and lifestyle.

"The way to do it is through young people themselves," said project manager, Magdeline Madibela.

Funding for three years to the tune of US $1.8 million has come from the United Nations Foundation through Telling the Story, a cluster of youth-led AIDS awareness projects in seven Southern African countries.

The project has tapped into a pool of young men and women who, like Lesetedi, are eager to live differently. A task force of local youth act as advisers to the scheme.

It is not only about AIDS. It is about building self-esteem, becoming empowered, and making informed choices.

"Youth are fed fear-based messages while in their community they see sadness, stigma, poverty, disease and death, it's no wonder they are disillusioned," said Sarah Kirby, a specialist on adolescent reproductive health with the UN Children's Fund.

One difference about the Urban Youth Project is its message of hope and life. It is pulling out all the stops to get youth excited about their health and sports, about setting goals and controlling their lives.

Another unique feature is that local youth drive the project.

"Young people are eager to join because they feel it is their project," said Mositi O. Tsenang, from the Family Health Division at the Ministry of Health.

Some youth will become peer educators. Others will work at newly established youth-friendly health clinics. Yet others will learn how to develop and manage micro-businesses.

Local groups for sports, music, theatre and traditional dances are part of this wave of fresh thinking descending on Old Naledi, Bontleng and Broadhurst townships in Gaborone.

Also new is this kind of partnership between the health ministry, NGOs, community groups and the United Nations.

The resource-rich and strong government and the poorer, weaker NGO sector have had, in the diplomatic wording of the UN Development Programme's Botswana Human Development Report 2000, "inefficient interface (and failure) to develop strong synergies to move their common agendas forward".

On Saturday afternoon, young people hang around Old Naledi's dilapidated community hall. The Table Tennis Club owns one ramshackle table, two bats and one ball. The long wait for a turn discourages many would-be players.

At the empty field grandly called the Sports Ground, the basketball hoops have no nets and the swings have no seats.

"We are the forgotten ones, the first to be exploited, the last to benefit," said Ngotah Tshetlhoyagae, an actor with a community theatre group. They are rehearsing hilarious anti-AIDS skits under a tree in the hall's dusty backyard.

It doesn't help that Old Naledi votes solidly for the opposition Botswana National Front.

Moreover, Old Naledi has a reputation for crime, though locals say it is exaggerated. Stolen goods, dagga and ecstasy pills find their way to the township. This year has so far seen eight fatal stabbings against three last year.

"Some crime is inspired by boredom," said chief P.M. Pilane, who presides over the traditional court. "I hope this project will help young people avoid a life of crime."

If it helps them avoid unsafe sex, they will have a life to look forwards to. And Old Naledi will offer its young more than nights filled with shebeen queens and broken dreams.


Recent BOTSWANA Reports
Baby steps in bringing down teen pregnancy,  10/Nov/05
The ABC of Masturbation,  5/Jul/05
Red tape stymies media spreading anti-AIDS message ,  26/May/05
Tenofovir trials to start soon - despite controversy,  30/Mar/05
Anti-AIDS drugs for armed forces,  10/Mar/05
Le portail d'informations générales de la Côte d’Ivoire
The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria
Youth against AIDS
Making a Difference for Children Affected by AIDS

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