HIV in Southern Africa: It’s Worse Than You Think

October 2, 2009

Over the weekend I was in Lesotho for my father-in-law’s funeral. Lesotho (pronounced luh-soo-too) is a country of around 2 million people surrounded by South Africa; to get there we flew down to Johannesburg and then on to Maseru, the capital. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but discovered a a ruggedly beautiful country, a small community of  hospitable ex-pats,  and welcoming locals.

Football in Lesotho

The tragedy of this wonderful country is that it is struggling with a very high rate of HIV infection, one of the highest in Africa, and estimated at around 20% of the population; in the 15-40 year old group it is probably closer to 4 out of every 10 people. Average life expectancy is now around 35 years.

The high rate persists for a number of reasons: although condoms are available, young people don’t like wearing them; free HIV tests are available but the stigma associated with HIV means that potential carriers are reluctant to take the test; some believe that since AIDS makes you thin sleeping with a fat person is safe, or that having intercourse with a young virgin will cure you. Unfortunately, I’m not making this up. And since HIV/AIDS suffers usually die from secondary causes such as, e.g., pneumonia or tuberculosis, it is convenient to deny the underlying cause when someone dies.

There are around 400,000 orphans from AIDS; the boys seem to prefer living on the streets than taking up orphanage places, while the orphaned girls who aren’t looked after often become concubines. Africa has a system of extended family where an aunt or uncle will look after children if anything happens to their parents, but with one wage on average supporting 8 people (and a minimum wage of ZAR 900, or around £70, per month) the demand on the income earner becomes too great, and this system breaks down. Antiretroviral drugs are effective only when combined with a proper diet.

As desperate as this situation is,  it’s important to keep trying to get it under control.  Getting assistance to the people that need it is difficult but not impossible. There are numerous organisations working in Lesotho, such as Kick 4 Life (who work with 12-17 year olds through football), the Durham-Lesotho link, and Prince Harry’s charity Sentebale which is working to transform the lives of Lesotho’s orphans and vulnerable children.

I know that money is tight for most of us at the moment, but if you feel like improving someone’s life you may be surprised how much of an impact a contribution could make. Please check out these links and make your own mind up.

Update: I have signed up to run the London Marathon on behalf of Sentebale. I’m not a regular runner, and I haven’t run the Marathon before so dragging my forty-something body around 26 miles is going to be tough. But I know it’s going to make a difference to the lives of some of the children out there. Please support me to whatever degree you can. Thanks!