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NAMIBIA: Bought and sold on the border

OSHIKANGO, 11 November 2008 (IRIN) - Beer, batteries and sex – everything’s a commodity on the border. For many, the town of Oshikango on the Namibia-Angola border, is a way station. For those who grow up there, it’s a home with little in the way of things to do, places to go and future opportunities - making economics, boredom and alcohol a dangerous mix.

Oshikango, in northern Namibia's Ohangwena region, lies on a major trucking route from the Namibian capital of Windhoek to the Angolan city of Lubango, and is about as close to "big city lights" as many local youth ever get.

More than half the population survives by farming in the surrounding rural area, while another 30 percent live off old-age pensions. But in this island of economic activity, there are few formal employment opportunities for young people, so alcohol helps pass the time, and for some, sex work provides a bit of money. Both are HIV-risk factors, which may explain a local prevalence rate almost 10 percent higher than the national average.

Financial risk

Oshikango is one of two main border posts between Namibia and Angola, the other being Rundu in the eastern Kavango region, which fell out of favour among some import-exporters during Angola’s civil war due to heavy mining in the area. Even now, roads from Rundu into Angola's interior are sometimes impassable, said Sammy, an Angolan businessman who used to run trucks of beer from Cape Town, South Africa, to Luanda, the Angolan capital, where the beer could fetch three times what he had paid.

In one of Oshikango's few motels, young Angolan men with umbrellas in their drinks lounge around the pool as dusk sets; 2km away, locals with wheel barrows and plastic jugs are making their last trip of the day to collect water from the nearby lake.

Angolans like Sammy flock over the border every day on shopping trips for goods that are cheaper in Oshikango than in their own country, often paying with the American dollars used by many wealthy Angolans, not only for business but also for pleasure.

"You either get a job in a retail shop or a bottle store or the open market, or you don't get a job at all," said Festus Hango, regional coordinator in the north for Namibia's Social Marketing Association (SMA), a national HIV and AIDS organisation working with the youth.

"Oshikango is a commercial area and some of the youth go there to look for possible jobs. There are some engaged in risky behaviours with truck drivers, others looking for piece-work - maybe unloading and loading stock in a shop. And if a person isn't working, they are at the bars drinking - you go out, you find cuca-shops, music blaring 24 hours a day," Hango commented.

"Cucashops" - informal taverns, named after Cuca beer, a Portuguese brand initially sold in these pubs - nowadays bear names like "Ghetto Life", "Good Life" or "Out of Town Mix".

Alcohol abuse is one of main contributors to poor adherence among patients on antiretroviral (ARV) treatment said Dr Adewole Olusoji, who works in the communicable diseases unit of Oshikati State Hospital, about 170km southwest of Oshikango, the nearest referral facility. Alcohol has also been shown to interfere with the body's ability to metabolise ARVs, as well as increasing likelihood of drug resistance.

Ephraim Nekongo, who was born and raised in nearby Ongwediva and now runs the town's youth group, said alcohol abuse was often a way for young people - many of whom did not finish secondary school - to cope with the frustrations of unemployment.

"We play soccer and, nowadays, go to the entertainment park, but most young people tend to do their fun through alcohol," he said. "When you are unemployed, you will either stay home or look for unskilled jobs, but you are stressed because you are not bringing in any money, so you'll start to drink."

Out of town mix

In a town with only one road, it is hard to miss Oshikango's hotspot, Pisca's Restaurant, next to a massive parking lot packed with articulated long-haul trucks, a popular stop for cross-border truck drivers carrying goods into Angola, who can wait up to a week to clear customs.

During the day, the men spend their time drinking, playing cards or making appointments for later that night with commercial sex workers roaming the lot, who charge N$100 (US$9) or less per client.


Photo: Laura Lopez Gonzalez/IRIN
Small-scale farming and old-age grants provide the main income for many families living outside Oshikango
Simon Messias, an Angolan, buys cars in Cape Town and sells them at a profit in Luanda. He pays Pisca's security guards to let him sleep in his car in the parking lot. He said commercial sex workers look for men like him, and it is not because of his looks: "They only want you when you come and say you are from Angola, because if you are from Angola, they think you have money."

In a recent survey by Namibia's National Social Marketing (NASOMA) programme among sex workers in Oshikango, less than 22 percent reported attending secondary school.

Looking for money, knowing your status

Fina Emvula, 26, who grew up 60km south of Oshikango and now works as a counsellor at the New Start voluntary testing and counselling centre opposite Pisca's, said she knew that a lack of opportunities and boredom could lead to sex, alcohol and even drugs. New Start was unlikely to change these risk factors, but she hoped the information she gave people would help.

For most of its three years of operation the centre has seen about 130 clients a month, a number so low there was talk of closing it, she said. Then, earlier this year, the centre started holding testing events such as men's days, and various other activities to attract more people and counteract stigma.

The clinic now tests around 450 people each month and, despite the fact that it still struggles to persuade clients to be tested regularly, has had huge success with its couples counselling.

"You have to ask clients who want to bring their partner: 'How are you going to ask him?'," she said. "It's not by force, and we even tell them, 'If you bring your partner by force, we are not testing you'."

"Sometimes you can even see the couples outside quarrelling, and when you see that, you tell them, "Today, we are just going to give you information'."

More commercial sex workers are also coming to the clinic, and a mobile testing facility to reach them, as well as truckers and taxi drivers, will start operating in 2009.

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Theme (s): HIV/AIDS (PlusNews),

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

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