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ANGOLA: Safe fun during carnival urged, as Luanda prepares for annual party

Photo: Mercedes Sayagues/IRIN
The rehearsal director for the Bloco Vermelho wearing a redT-shirt saying: "In this carnival, use a condom."
luanda, 23 February 2006 (PlusNews) - This weekend, Luanda will explode in a frenzy of gaudy costumes and masks, wild drumming and dancing. On Saturday, as the sun sets over the Angolan capital, tens of thousands of merrymakers will throng the seaside to watch carnival's main event - the parade.

"Carnival is our culture's central manifestation, par excellence, where all the arts are represented," the director of carnival, Carlos de Jesus Vieira Lopes, told PlusNews.

These are three days of total partying.

"Carnival is a space of liberation, and also of risk, because there are excesses of alcohol, drugs, sex and sexual violence," said Antonio Coelho, president of ANASO, the Angolan network of AIDS service organisations.

ANASO has found a unique way of reminding people of these risks.

It created the Bloco Vermelho (Red Troupe) which takes part in the parade. It comprises about 1,500 youth, dressed in red and white, who dance to songs specially composed for this occasion by Sebem, a renowned songwriter of kuduro, a contagious dance rhythm.

"My friend, be careful. My friend, dangers lurks. My friend, this carnival, let us sing: condoms are cool, condoms are nice," says the theme song.

Leading the Bloco is its King, Sebem, and Queen, Miss Angola. The Prince is basketball player Jean Jacques da Conceição, and the Princesses are Miss Luanda, and Raquel de Lomba, a popular soap actress.

They will be followed by politicians from the ruling party and the opposition, the deputy minister of health and municipal authorities.

And after them, the young people will dance, sing, and hand out condoms. Among them will be Paulo Domingos, who explained that a friend had convinced him to join.

"He overcame my resistance, because neighbours think that if you join the Bloco, you must be HIV positive, and at the first attack of malaria, they gossip," he said.

This is the fourth year for the Bloco. In 2002, it was called the Blue Bloco and pooled environmental and human rights activists. The following year, ANASO opted for an AIDS-dedicated Bloco, clad in red.

Ever since then the Bloco Vermelho has grown in size and popularity.

"The blocos are a new element in our carnival, dating from the last five years, and attracting young, middle class urban youth," explained Vieira Lopes.

Traditionally, the central element of the parade are the Grupos Carnavalescos (carnival groups), with strong participation from the slums and outskirts of the city. These showcase a mix of both African and Portuguese colonial culture.

In their songs, dances and costumes, the Grupos address the problems of daily life, current affairs, and political satire. The year's main events – Angola's defeat at the African Cup of Nations, the birth of quadruplets, the cholera epidemic – are represented in sculptures made of cardboard, fabric and wire.

The Grupos compete for prizes, the Blocos do not - although they parade and show off their choreography to the judges seated on the main stand.

"AIDS is a new element in our culture and has become integrated in our carnival," said the director of the Museum of Anthropology, Américo Kwononoca.

At a rehearsal last week in Luanda, hundreds of youth ignored the oppressive humidity and heat.

At an open field belonging to the army's telecommunications regiment in Kassequel do Lourenço, near Luanda's airport, young men and women whirled and turned, forming the AIDS ribbon, under the direction of Domingos João Souza, 26.

Three years ago, Souza, who lives near the barracks, heard the music, got curious, and joined. Today he is the rehearsal director.

"At the beginning I worried about being thought to be HIV positive, but now I understand that we have to teach each other about prevention, otherwise AIDS will never stop," he said.

The epidemic is relatively new in Angola, its prevalence rate relatively low - just under four percent - and its impact not yet highly visible, especially in the capital.

"The Bloco Vermelho is a good way to attract attention of the skeptics and convince them that AIDS exists," concluded Kwononoca.

"Careful, people. Tell your friend; danger is not choosy. Singing and dancing, for a carnival without AIDS, let's party, let's do it safely," as the song says.

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