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SOUTH AFRICA: Corridors of hope against HIV

Photo: IRIN
Malawian trucker James Chilwa - these days I stay faithful to my wife
messina, 13 February 2002 (PlusNews) - The border town of Messina, at the northeastern tip of the country, is South Africa's gateway to the rest of the continent.

Throughout the day, a steady flow of vehicles with number plates from throughout the region churn up the dust alongside the road to the border. At night, Messina seems just as busy. It serves as the entertainment centre for truckers parked for the evening, and people from the nearby farms and mines looking for some action in the many shebeens (illegal bars).

Inevitably, in all that traffic, HIV is a passenger.

Mashudu Madhadzve runs the Centre for Positive Care in Messina. It provides home-based care and other STD and HIV/AIDS services. Volunteer "peer educators" - drawn from sex workers, single mothers and low income women - also give up their time to educate the community (and those in transit) on safe sex. She says that the centre is kept busy.

Messina is a frontier trading town. Its corner grocery stores are full of bulk items of basic goods in demand further north. Army trucks trundle through, dropping off and picking up soldiers who man the security fence on the border. Its population is a mix of local South Africans, old mine workers from Zimbabwe and Zambia who have stayed on, and new immigrants who have arrived in Messina under varying degrees of legitimacy. Tiny shacks for rent crowd around government-built "RDP" houses.

Sex is also a highly tradeable commodity. But the poverty of the women engaged in commercial sex work here means that it is neither lucrative nor safe. Sex without a condom costs around R50 (US $4 dollars), and with a condom just R15-20 (less than US $2 dollars).

Madhadzve said that the lure of the extra money for poor and vulnerable women means that sex without a condom is common. She told PlusNews that many of the sex workers are young and impressionable. The youngest recruited by the peer educators was just 13 when she joined. Other women from across the border are forced to trade sex for immigration papers, or as protection against harassment by the authorities, and also have little negotiating power.

"Prostitutes are after money so they don't insist on the wearing of condoms," Malawian truck driver James Chilwa told IRIN.

Zimbabwean trucker Pius Gumbanjera, also waiting to cross the border, agreed. "It's for men to play that role because the women don't bother. All they want is money to take care of themselves and their children."

Long distance truck drivers are among the high risk groups that Madhadzve's organisation tries to reach. Her organisation is one of the implementing partners of a Corridors of Hope initiative funded by the United States Agency for Development (USAID).

According to USAID's website (, in Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe, "it is believed that 18 percent or more of the entire adult population is infected with HIV.

"Not surprisingly, some of the highest incidences of HIV/AIDS have been found at cross border sites where there's a high turnover of truck drivers, migrant workers and commercial sex workers ... The primary aim of the programme is to target high transmission areas at cross border sites and to implement appropriate interventions."

The Centre for Positive Care uses women peer educators, dressed identifiably in red, to preach the message of safe sex to the truck drivers. At least twice a week, they stage dramas and discussions at the truck stops. Condoms are also handed out, and more frank discussion on their use.

"The biggest problem is the language, all these guys are from different areas," Madhadzve said. "Truckers also feel targeted and stigmatised and we try to show them that it's not their fault."

The truckers that PlusNews spoke to seemed well aware of the concept of safe sex, but admitted that some of their colleagues did not trust condoms as a barrier to HIV. "To stop it [HIV/AIDS] is a problem because some of us use condoms, some of us don't - they say that the condom has got the disease inside it," said Zimbabwean driver Portepha Mpariwa.

"Everyone has the message, but there are some who understand and some who ignore it, saying [AIDS] is because of something else," explained Gumbanjera. "Not all believe in condoms, especially when they've been drinking. I'd say use [of condoms] was about 50/50."

Overcoming reluctance to use condoms is one of the main goals of the peer educators at the truck stops. "There is a lot of misunderstanding about condoms," Madhadzve said. She added that they regularly had to explain that the rubber smell was normal "and not the virus", that the spermicide was safe, and that - by filling a condom with litres of water - demonstrate they are exceptionally strong if properly used.

But perhaps the most powerful inducement to change is personal experience. "In the past I was too loose," said Chilwa. "I heard there was AIDS but I didn't believe it ... I used to drink too much and forget about AIDS. But after seeing people dying I realised that I had to change. So these days, although my family is far, I stay faithful to my wife."

Theme (s): Gender Issues,

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

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