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AIDS in Botswana

July 6, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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LINDSEY HILSUM: This is a country where the old bury the young. Two decades ago, Pule funeral parlor dealt with three or four deaths a week. Now it’s 20 or more, sons and daughters. AIDS has seeped through Botswana like a poison. It started in the towns, but now it’s everywhere; in the rural areas, in the country’s biggest village, Molepolole. Here in the graveyard at Molepolole, I can see headstones of people who born in the 60′s and 70′s, and new, unmarked graves. I’m told there were dozens of funerals here every weekend.

Botswana had such high hopes. The government was going to spend its diamond revenues on ending poverty and developing the rural areas. But now, it’s going to have to devote more and more of its budget to hospitals and medicines. The people, meanwhile, spend their money on funerals and tombstones. AIDS is making everyone poorer. Its changed everything.

PRESIDENT FESTUS MOGAE, Botswana: It permeates all our society and everything we do, and therefore, it has to be and it is our preoccupation. It cuts across our efforts in fighting poverty, in stimulating growth, and therefore, it tends to reverse the gains we had made. And therefore, it has to be priority, number one.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Botswana is the world’s largest diamond producer. It has the fastest growing economy in Africa. At this diamond cutting plant in Molepolole, ten workers have died of AIDS-related illnesses in the last 18 months. There are plenty more to fill the gap. But employers are beginning to ask, “it is worth training workers who fall ill and die?” The government’s considering compulsory AIDS tests for those going on scholarship to study abroad.

PRESIDENT FESTUS MOGAE: Just the other day, we have had to charter a plane from the United States to bring two ill students. We could have built a country primary school with the cost of the charter.

LINDSEY HILSUM: This is what it’s like to be poor and live with AIDS in Botswana today. Kezrome Tshipana earns a little from hairdressing for the neighbors, but she and her mother are both sick and can no longer support the children. The day we visited, they had nothing to eat. And they don’t understand the concept of HIV/AIDS. It’s alien to their way of thinking, their culture.

KEAAROMA TSHIPANA, Daughter: (Translated): I know AIDS exists, but I’m confused because I go to a spiritual healing church, and there they say it’s witchcraft. The priest told me that at hospital they will say it’s HIV/AIDS, but in fact it’s just that those who bewitched me have made it look like AIDS. So it’s not that I don’t believe it, but this has been done to me to look like AIDS.

DIRANG RAPULA, Mother: (Translated) The traditional doctor helped me. He said it was witchcraft. Straight away he gave me medicine, and immediately I felt better.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The family are helped by a social worker and volunteer carers. The government nurse organizes the volunteers who look after AIDS patients in their homes. The hospital’s full. For every one that dies, another two fall sick. Living through this epidemic takes its toll even on those whose job it is to care.

OLEBOGENG TSEDI, Government Nurse: Sometimes you need somebody to talk to, to laugh at. But when you’re alone in a house staying far away from your family, what do you do? You sit and cry. For who? For somebody you have seen outside who is sick, or somebody who is suffering, but you can’t do anything. You try to help, but at the end of the day…

LINDSEY HILSUM: But on Saturday night in the capital, Gaborone, AIDS seems to be the last thing on anyone’s mind. The government message is: Abstain from sex, stick to one partner, use a condom. The truth is dawning slowly. Whatever they do, one-third of young people are going to die. Those who are not infected will survive only if they change their sexual behavior now. AIDS will not wait.