Independent On-Line, 06 December 2002, Africa: a continent in denial about Aids

Otjandjamuenjo, Namibia - Aids has been ravaging Africa for 20 years now, with 2,4 million people dying of the disease last year and close to 30 million people infected by its precursor HIV, but some communities maintain it does not affect them.

In
Namibia, the Himba hunter-gatherers tell you that Aids is not a disease that affects their tribe, though they acknowledge it exists on the outside.

"We do hear about it a lot, but we haven't seen one person dying from it in our community," says Vetuetera, a leading figure in the northern
village of Otjandjamuenjo, which has some 700 inhabitants.

Vetuetera does note, however, that when she was young, somebody around her current age (about 30, she does not know exactly when she was born) would die about once every five years, but that "nowadays it's very common that you find people of my age dying".

Marianne Shalumbu, of the ministry of women's affairs and child welfare, says the impact of Aids "is not a reality yet" for the Himba.

"They don't make the connection (between Aids and) frequent deaths, and hospitalisation for (Aids-related) tuberculosis and pneumonia," she says.

The Himbas-Herreros, one of 11 tribes in
Namibia, which has 1,8 million people, keep to themselves, a minority in the north, which is dominated by the Ovambo, the tribe of President Sam Nujoma.

The Himba remain semi-nomadic, and out of the mainstream in terms of education, health care and machinery.

"But they are very, very strong people culturally and traditionally, with very strong community links," which allows them to absorb an ever-growing number of orphans, says a local government official, who is of the Ovambo tribe. "They are far better than our people in looking after their children," the official acknowledges.

"They don't acknowledge this disease. They say 'it is an Ovambo disease, it is not our culture'."

Vetuetera recognises that Aids is a threat to her people, but only to those in contact with the Ovambo - the young who go off to the towns, or enrol in the army.

As a result, the people of the village tend to keep their daughters at home after primary school rather than sending them away to secondary schools.

For Vetuetera, keeping Aids away from the Himba boils down to strengthening traditional values - which she teaches at the kindergarten she runs - coupled with extreme vigilance over outside contact.

"We instruct our girls from an early age to be very careful with anybody who has gone outside of our community," she says.

As well, she believes in traditional medicine - "people sometimes come from the hospital with tablets, which don't make them better, and sometimes they die in spite of the tablets".

Shalumbu, who is trying to help without interfering, notes that the Himba are slowly integrating with the rest of the people in
Namibia.

"There is nobody that can prevent or control the process of integration," with the attendant danger of the spread of Aids, she says.

"What we are trying is coming and bringing the reality to them, disseminating information, but communities will turn their back on you if you don't accommodate them."

Vetuetera, one of the few people in the village to have travelled, is seen as a "bridge" between the community and officials.

Time is running out.

The Himbas' grazing land has been drought-stricken for several years, and officials have provided them with maize and millet seeds to plant - a new way of life for them.

The danger they run now is that Aids will decimate those strong enough to sow and reap. - Sapa-AFP