ANGOLA-ZAMBIA: Refugees return home armed with the knowledge of HIV/AIDS prevention

Photo: Jason Hopps/IRIN
Young Angolan refugees awaiting repatriation from Zambia
MAYUKWAYUKWA REFUGEE CAMP, 8 November 2006 (PlusNews) - Four years after a ceasefire ended decades of civil war in neighbouring Angola, Zambia is still home to more than 25,000 Angolan refugees awaiting repatriation. Zambia's HIV/AIDS prevalence rate is about 18 percent; in Angola it is around 4 percent. The challenge is how to keep Angola's relative low rates of HIV/AIDS in check.

About 170,000 refugees have already gone home, some having fled the fighting in the 1970s. They are returning to a country where war-induced isolation has helped dampen HIV infection.

The situation poses an acute problem: Will peace and the reopening of the country mean a jump in prevalence levels? The problem is aggravated by Angola's low rates of knowledge about HIV/AIDS - what the disease is and how to avoid it.

In Zambia the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the Christian Outreach Relief and Development (CORD) have developed a wide range of programmes aimed at educating Angolan refugees about the dangers of HIV/AIDS, which has killed millions across southern Africa.

"When the refugees return to Angola they often face discrimination because the locals assume they will be carrying HIV or other diseases," said Elizabeth Barnhart of IOM. "The refugees need to empower themselves and be able to talk intelligently about the problem, and to overcome the fear they will encounter. Beyond that, they should be in a position to pass on to fellow Angolans what they have learned in Zambia."

Delivering the safe sex message, wiping out the stigma and myths concerning HIV/AIDS, are part of all activities at Mayukwayukwa camp.

Dozens of excited children gather in front of a television set as the sun sets on this ramshackle camp in western Zambia, home to thousands of Angolan refugees.

When the first feature of the evening flicks across the screen, the children hush each other and fall silent. The cartoon shows a group of boys who want to play football - but they don't have a ball. Refusing defeat, they collect packages of condoms, roll them together and use that instead. When the condom ball breaks, the game is definitely over.

It's hard to say whether the message is getting through, but the children laugh and clap at the cartoon regardless. For many, the short film is their first, gentle lesson in safe sex and the dangers of HIV/AIDS.

The training also encourages them to pass on their knowledge when they return home to Angola, where they will be integral to rebuilding the communities they were forced to abandon.

The younger refugees - both boys and girls - are encouraged to participate in a football league, where safe sex and HIV/AIDS are discussed before and after matches.

Farming skills taught by a Peace Corps volunteer are peppered with lessons in nutrition and general health, while literacy training and health workshops help build awareness of HIV and other diseases. For the sexually active, condoms are readily available and freely distributed.

"All these programmes are designed to prevent the spread of HIV in the camp and to educate those who are not infected," said CORD spokesman Chola Musonda. "We believe the messages about HIV will flow into the community here, and back into Angola when they repatriate. If myths about the disease can pass from person to person, why not the truth?"

When Lucas Savier, 43, and a married father of two, fled Angola for Zambia in 2000 he knew nothing about HIV, except that it was a disease that could kill. An eager student at health classes run by the IOM at the Mayukwayukwa camp, he now teaches others.

"Prevention is very important, you should not be doing unprotected sex," Savier said. "You should not use the same razorblades as other people, but AIDS can't be caught from drinking from the same glass or from hugging somebody. It's crazy what some people think."

Although the IOM did not provide exact numbers, partly because testing is voluntary, it said the level of HIV in the refugee camps was "extremely low". The crucible of the camp has provided a scenario where the poor and largely uneducated can be taught how to avoid the disease.

"The refugees have dealt with the problem by acknowledging it," said Barnhart. "In the videos they watch others facing the problem and realise it is something that should not be hidden because of shame. When they go back to Angola, prevention will be the weapon they take with them."


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