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Last Updated:  Thursday, 20 February, 2003, 22:51 GMT
Aids ravages Swazi society

By Michael Buerk
BBC News in Swaziland

BBC News has harrowing new evidence of the extent of the Aids catastrophe in southern Africa. According to the United Nations, several countries could be near collapse. They all face one major obstacle: a shortage of affordable drug treatment.

Swazi boys made orphans by aids
Children face a future without parents

This week, the UK Chancellor Gordon Brown stepped in with a hard-hitting message to the multinational drug companies. He said they must allow poor countries to buy cheap versions of their drugs.

The Aids epidemic is sweeping across large parts of the African continent. Around 30 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are now living with HIV.

Two and a half million people lost their lives in 2001 and it's getting worse.

Swaziland is one of the countries most severely affected. Four in every 10 people are HIV positive. A decade ago life expectancy was 61. Now it is just 37. Soon it will be 30.

Too little, too late

By the end of next year it is thought a third of all children will be without parents.

A generation is going to its grave long before its time, leaving its children orphans and carrying the seeds of their own destruction.

Over half of the patients in the country's hospitals now have Aids.

They're wasting away from the disease and dozens of other cruel infections they can't resist.

50,000 have died already and the wave of deaths has barely begun.

I think we Swazis are naturally promiscuous people. Even after hearing that there is no cure for aids and aids is deadly, they remain promiscuous
Indvuna Masilela, local village chief

The HIV virus is passed down from pregnant mothers to their babies. It costs just 1.50 ($2.40) for an injection that can stop this. The government has promised to make it available but not for everyone, not everywhere, and far too late.

Alan Brody works for the UN's children's agency, Unicef, in the region.

"I guess the worst case is that society itself falls apart. How do you deal with losing this many people? I don't know of any situation in history where we have an epidemic that hollows out society like this", he explained.

Most Aids victims will never see a hospital.

Agonising deaths

One woman holds her child's hands, the girl wears a woollen black hat and looks up with sad eyes. The woman's daughter is dying a slow death, riddled with infections including agonising thrush.

African girl dying of Aids
This young girl is dying of Aids

Her other daughter died of Aids last year and is buried outside the hut that is their home. Granny is now left to care for seven children.

Inside every hut there is someone sick and dying. Or there are orphans left behind.

Aids wipes out families. Three brothers I met lost their parents to the disease. Now they have no money, which means no school. One in three Swazi children will be like them by the end of next year.

The Swazis' traditions are helping to kill them.

In the village, Indvuna Masilela is the local chief who inherited his brother's wife, when he died of Aids; it's the custom. Now, he too is dying.

"I think we Swazis are naturally promiscuous people. Even after hearing that there is no cure for Aids and Aids is deadly, they remain promiscuous" he explained through an interpreter.

Royal warning

The King of Swaziland has warned his parliament of slow-motion catastrophe.

"There is the very real possibility that the Swazi nation will cease to exist unless we change our attitudes and behaviour," King Mswati III told them.

The king and the patriarchal traditions he embodies are more the problem than the solution. At what is known as the reed dance, thousand of maidens dance before the king and he picks his wives.

King of Swaziland
The King has warned of the dangers

A man is measured by how many women and children he has - a legacy of the past when the land needed populating and defending against rival tribes. The king has 10 wives. His father had 100.

Even the king's senior wife is legally inferior to a man and has few choices.

"Polygamy is never something acceptable to a woman. It is obviously an advantage for the men. I think it's obvious what any woman would think of it", Inkhosikati Lambikisa explained to me.

You accepted it, I said to her. There is no reply, just a uncomfortable smile.

The king lives a life of luxury as well as libido. He wants his own executive jet costing 30 million ($48m), twice the country's annual health budget.

That, when a third of his subjects have to be fed by the outside world; when two-thirds are below his own government's poverty line; and Aids and drought cut food production by more than a half.

Aids workers here are comparing this epidemic with the Black Death that wiped out a third of Europe's population in the 14th Century. Slower though, more insidious, potentially more deadly and in the long-term maybe much more destructive.

The majority of Swazi teenagers will follow their parents to an early grave. This is worse than war and famine. Money is on its way from a global Aids fund but the world, and the people here who will suffer and die, are waking up to it far too late.



Q&A: Aids in Africa
20 Feb 03 |  Health
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