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ANGOLA: Cabinda slowly waking up to HIV/AIDS

Photo: IRIN
Laundry day in Cabinda
cabinda, 26 October 2004 (PlusNews) - The sleepy town of Cabinda has a forlorn air about it, but few outward signs of the decades-long conflict that has plagued the oil-rich Angolan province.

Although Cabinda produces 60 percent of Angola's oil revenues, the province, saddled with one of the highest HIV rates in the country, has been slow to respond to the epidemic.

The presence of new, freshly painted health facilities, like Cabinda's double-storey hospital and the newly opened maternity centre on the outskirts of town, suggest on the face of it that the province was better equipped to handle the epidemic.

"The better infrastructure doesn't necessarily translate into a better response or anything significant," the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) HIV/AIDS Project Officer, Melanie Luick, told PlusNews.

Although companies such as Chevron-Texaco have sponsored a range of social upliftment projects in Cabinda, critics have argued that these fell short of the needs in the province - particularly in relation to HIV/AIDS.

Separated from the rest of Angola by a strip of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the enclave of an estimated 350,000 people also borders the Congo Republic. A bush war has been waged by separatist rebels since Angola's independence in 1975.

The location of the province, combined with the movement of people between the countries, made Cabinda particularly vulnerable, as the neighbouring countries had higher prevalence rates, the vice governor of social affairs, Joao dos Santos Mesquita, pointed out.

Angola's adult prevalence rate is estimated at 5.5 percent, but the figure is based on limited data.

Although there were generally high levels of knowledge about HIV/AIDS in Cabinda, talking openly about the disease was another matter.

There are very few, if any, people living openly with HIV, and the disease is still regarded as something that happens to people in other countries and big cities like the capital, Luanda.

As a result of the isolation of communities during its 27-year civil war, Angola currently has one of the lowest prevalence rates in the region, but time is running out for the much talked about window of opportunity that health experts believe could prevent the number of infections from reaching the disturbingly high figures seen in the rest of the southern Africa.


Youth in Cabinda
Efforts to make more people aware of the disease and encourage them to talk about it are being spearheaded by young people in the province.

As Luick put it, "for too long, youth were not meant to be heard and respected."

But with 70 percent of the country's population made up of people younger than 24 years of age, Angolan youth can no longer be ignored.

In November 2002, UNICEF teamed up with Population Services International to launch four Jango Juvenile youth centres in Luanda, Cabinda, Lubango in the southern province of Huila and Huambo in the central province of the same name.

Cabinda's Muanza Juvenile - operated by the reproductive health NGO, ABC Gremio - is always buzzing with activity and provides English and computer lessons, as well as information on HIV/AIDS and sexual health.

It forms part of 'Telling the Story', a youth campaign funded by the United Nations Foundation, which sponsors youth projects in seven AIDS-affected countries in southern Africa.

Instead of "ramming sex down young people's throats", the centres were providing them with skills to empower themselves economically, Luick pointed out.

The project is specifically targeted at low-income Angolan youth, who are particularly vulnerable to HIV/AIDS.

Mechanics student Julio Issita Secuido uses the centre to access the brand name condoms sold for 5 kwanza (US $0.08), buying some for himself and his friends.

He has never been tested for HIV, but would like to know his status. "I have nothing to fear, I always take care of myself," Secuido told PlusNews.

When he first came to the centre to register for an English course, he couldn't even make it inside, as the queues were so long. But he has now been studying for six months and hopes to use his newfound skills to find employment with one of the oil companies.

He admitted that this would be difficult. "Most of the people who work there are from other provinces [and have] specific training. You also need connections."

For most of the youth in Cabinda without connections, attending classes at Muanza Juvenile is the next best option. Attendance at the centres is over-subscribed countrywide, with more than 4,000 students having registered for formal classes since the centres opened.

"There's nothing to do [in Cabinda]. No entertainment, no jobs. So we go there," Catarina Sanha Cadula told PlusNews.

As a recently qualified civil constructor, 24-year-old Teresa Simba Ramos is also acutely aware of the economic challenges facing Cabindan youth.

The cost of living is high, since Cabinda has no port facilities and consumer goods are flown from the capital, Luanda, or trucked in from neighbouring countries.

When she couldn't find a job, Ramos enrolled as a peer educator. She recently completed her training and has been a youth activist with ABC Gremio for the past four months.

"Prevalence in Cabinda is high and people are dying," she told PlusNews. This motivated her to begin providing weekly discussion groups on sex and other related topics in her mother's back yard, to reach youth who were unable to visit Muanza Juvenile.

On a Tuesday morning, a group of about 20 young people were crammed into an outbuilding that her mother also used as a private school, talking about teenage pregnancy.

Ramos admitted that few parents were willing to discuss such taboo subjects "even though it is a very serious problem."


Nevertheless, things are slowly beginning to change. Increased awareness campaigns and the establishment of a provincial commission to tackle the disease were steps in the right direction, Mesquita noted.

The province has also begun providing antiretroviral drugs to prevent mother-to-child transmission of the virus (PMTCT) said Dr Paulo Kibinda, medical coordinator of the PMTCT project.

But the regular supply of the drugs was a problem, as transport access to Cabinda was largely restricted to flights from Luanda. "We have a supply of 2 months. I hope the [next] supply arrives before the drugs run out," he added.

The modern, brightly painted maternity hospital, funded by the oil industry, was barely functioning, as there were not enough doctors in the province to run it, Kibinda noted.

Although some healthcare facilities offered HIV testing, there was still no established voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) centre in town.

Back at the vice-governor's offices, situated at the top of a hill overlooking the beach and the distant oil platforms on the horizon, Mesquita was upbeat about what needed to be done.

"Our main concern is the development of the province, especially in the economic and social sectors. We must fight stigma and tell people, 'now is the time to talk. AIDS must not be allowed to get in the way'."

Theme (s): Children,

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

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