It's the middle of the afternoon and a group of teenagers are playing cards in a homestead in the town of Yei, southern Sudan. The girls are heavily made up and the boys sport cowboy hats and basketball vests. You can smell the cigarettes and vodka they are passing around, and there are hormones in the air.
Photo: Neil Thomas/IRIN
|Time to get serious about protection
They are all school-age teens, but only one says he attends school regularly. "We just like to come here and relax in the afternoons; we don't have anything else to do," said Samuel Deng, 19, who still in primary school.
The long-running north-south civil war, and the more recent presence of the Ugandan rebel group, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), has kept many Southern Sudanese children out of school.
Once evening comes, the young people disperse, drunk, into the night and head for Yei's many bars. The town's economy has boomed since the end of the war because it lies just 80km from the Ugandan border, and is the entry point for all the consumer goods the south does not yet manufacture.
The town is crammed with truckers and traders from neighbouring Uganda, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo, ready to buy alcohol and part with some money for the company of a young lady for the evening, and many of the town's teenage girls are willing enough partners. With little money and even less education, Yei's young people are in the crosshairs of the AIDS pandemic.
Statistics on the AIDS pandemic are hard to come by, but a study published in AIDS, the official journal of the International AIDS Society in April 2006, put prevalence in Yei at 4.4 percent, significantly higher than the national level of 2.6 percent.
"I know you can stop AIDS by using ABC," said Deng, but when asked he could not explain that the A, B and C stood for Abstinence, Be faithful and use a Condom.
Once the loud guffaws at the mention of sex had died down, some of the others in the group said they had never been told that AIDS was spread by having sex. Those who did know about AIDS said condoms were too expensive.
"Awareness is amazingly low in this area; people simply don't know the facts about AIDS," said Florianne Gaillardin, area coordinator for the American Refugee Committee, one of the larger non-governmental organisations (NGOs) involved in HIV prevention, care and support in Yei. "Almost all problems here are blamed on witchcraft and superstition, and illnesses, including HIV, are still perceived in this way."
The security situation had prevented HIV services from reaching much of Southern Sudan, she said, but the recent peace had given HIV service providers a chance to begin prevention activities.
In town, where most NGOs operate, signs of HIV awareness messages can be seen: some hospitals have voluntary counselling and testing sites and peer counsellors visit the school and roam the streets, teaching young people about the pandemic.
But AIDS is still virtually unheard of in rural areas. In the tiny village of Morsak, in a dense forest about 25km outside Yei, the level of ignorance was shocking.
"AIDS is brought by a beautiful woman; when you sleep with her you become thin and remain with no flesh, just bones," said Epainento Kenyi, a village elder, when asked if he had ever heard of the disease.
Villagers told PlusNews they had never seen or heard of anyone who had died from an AIDS-related illness. One young man in the village, educated in Uganda, said even if somebody in the community had died as a result of the virus, the level of ignorance was such that nobody would have been able to recognise the cause as HIV.
The single shop in the village sold Ugandan beer, vodka, sugar and tea, but no condoms. Kenyi said he had never heard of a condom, while other men said they had heard of them but had never seen one. On being told the various purposes of the prophylactic Kenyi exclaimed, "How can I waste the chance to have a child?"
The need for education in rural Sudan is all the more urgent, because since the war has ended, and there are peace talks between the Ugandan government and the LRA, people are beginning to head for the towns.
"We are now going down to the boma [local government] level with the AIDS message; we have bicycle volunteers who go quite deep into the villages to talk to rural people," Gaillardin said. "We are also using traditional healers and educating them, so that they can serve as our entry point into the communities."
Their efforts were also being bolstered by the return of well-informed refugees from neighbouring countries, who could educate their communities about the dangers of HIV.
The Southern Sudan HIV/AIDS Commission launched a national strategic framework for HIV/AIDS in June, which includes plans to ensure that AIDS awareness reaches even the most remote areas.