ANGOLA: AIDS stigma pervasiveluanda, 3 July 2002 (IRIN) - "It's so hard," said a tearful Rita Domingos. "The moment people learn I'm HIV positive, they treat me differently. Neighbours shun me. Children avoid touching me. The landlord finds an excuse to kick me out of my room."
One of a handful of Angolans open about being HIV positive, Domingos, 22, endures prejudice and stigma daily.
Four of ten women aged 15-49 show discriminatory attitudes towards people with HIV/AIDS, said a recent nation-wide survey by the UN children's agency UNICEF and the National Institute of Statistics.
Another study among youth in Luanda and the southern port city of Lubango found that people with HIV/AIDS suffer "abandonment, rejection, job loss and isolation".
"Even friends flee". "People despise them, neighbours gossip. "The family dumped him in the hospital." "The family shut her in a room until she died," are some comments of the youth interviewed.
In Lubango, many youth said HIV positive people should be identified publicly or imprisoned to control the spread of the disease.
AIDS is relatively "new" in Angola. The 27-year-old intermittent civil war restricted labour migration, trade and travel. The mobile virus was contained. Now that war is over and the country is opening up, expect a surge, analysts predict.
The infection rate is officially eight percent, but experts warn this is just the tip of the iceberg. In the absence of country-wide sentinel sites, data comes from antenatal clinics in just four out of 17 provinces.
In terms of public awareness, Angola is at the point the rest of Southern Africa was 10 years ago. Myths, denial and prejudice abound. A shocking 65 percent of Angolans do not know one single way to prevent transmission. Only nine percent are adequately informed about the disease.
Ignorance breeds stigma and discrimination. People are afraid to be tested, to disclose their status and to seek help, thus driving AIDS underground.
"Even doctors and nurses don't know about AIDS and treat us badly," said Paula Alves (not her real name), 22, who learned
she was HIV positive when her baby died six months ago. She has not found the courage to tell her mother, nor her estranged lover, who is married. "I can't," she said, biting her lip. "I just can't. It's too hard."
The media has inadvertently fuelled fear by stressing that AIDS kills and has no cure. The underlying message is that HIV is a death sentence. This does not encourage prevention or changes in sexual behaviour.
For many Angolans, AIDS is a problem of others, of marginalised groups, of sex workers, of soldiers and truck drivers, of Congolese traders, of Zimbabwean UN peacekeepers, of gay European aid workers, of anyone but themselves.
The next stage, explained Dan Odallo of UNAIDS, "is to accept that we are all either infected or affected, because AIDS happens to relatives, friends, colleagues and neighbours. AIDS touches all of us living in Africa, it is not something that happens elsewhere, to others."
Stigma raises its ugly head everywhere. Recently, Domingos and Alves told their stories to a group of journalists at a workshop to improve HIV/AIDS coverage. In spite of all the talk about reducing stigma and using respectful language, one journalist referred to Domingos as a "contaminated young woman".
The pretty, vivacious, smartly dressed Domingos told him right off the wording was wrong. "You are hurting my feelings," she said. "That word evokes all kind of bad things. Do I look any different from other girls my age? You only know I have HIV because I told you."
Angolan media echoes society's lack of knowledge about AIDS. Often the media uncritically reports urban myths. Two recent ones: that oranges imported from South Africa were injected with the virus; that a food vendor, upon learning she was HIV positive, added drops of her blood to the hamburgers she sold. Sales of oranges and street food declined for a while.
"AIDS is still taboo in Angola," said Nicole Mayenda, of AMSA (Associacao de Ajuda, Misericordia e Solidariedade, Association for help, mercy and solidarity).
In the squalid shantytowns of Cacuaco and Cazenga, AMSA counsellors help AIDS-affected families caring for orphans or sick relatives.
Paulina Ndembo cares for seven children orphaned when her sister died, aged 43, early this year. Ndembo's three children are grown-up and married.
"My sister was faithful. Her husband brought the disease from another woman he had, who has since died, and he died two years ago," said Ndembo.
Ndembo is so open about AIDS that she wears her sister's clothes and tells neighbours HIV cannot be transmitted in this way.
"Some neighbours hide they have the virus, fearing others will not talk to them or buy from them. Not me. We have a right to speak out," she said.
Ndembo's frank attitude is rooted in AMSA counselling and in the Universal Church of God's Kingdom where she worships. The pastor preaches about AIDS, encouraging faithfulness and abstinence. He also says AIDS is God's punishment but those who repent and pray with faith will be cured.
In seven provinces, a few NGOs are trying to dispel the culture of silence and prejudice through awareness programmes. They are funded, to the tune of US $1.8 million, by "Telling the Story", a youth-oriented project sponsored by CNN mogul Ted Turner's United Nations Foundation.
Domingos and Alves are peer educators with one of these NGOs in Luanda. They talk to young people about safe sex, living positively, and helping, not rejecting, people with HIV/AIDS.
"We all have to die of something, no one is immortal, so let's get on with life," said Domingos.