Red Cross performs in Malawi

By Pia Caspersen in Malawi
A big event is taking place in Mpamanta village today. The most vulnerable families in the area will receive their monthly food ration -- but they will also be entertained. Local Red Cross volunteers will perform their drama about AIDS.

More than 500 villagers have already gathered around the shady mango tree. A group of dancers in colorful dresses are warming up the audience, while three female drummers take care of the rhythm. Now the Red Cross actors are getting ready to take the improvised stage.

"We decided to create this drama because we felt that somehow our fellow youths can learn from us things that they are not able to talk about with their parents. We can give them information on AIDS through such dramas," Imassi Silafi from the Malawi Red Cross explains.

The sketch is about two men discussing having sex with a woman. The sensible guy tells the other guy that he must use a condom to stop the spread of AIDS. Then out of his pocket he takes a little silvery package -- carefully he takes out a condom and shows it to his friend.

Suddenly the drama intensifies as the actor pretends that he will actually put on the condom. People start laughing and shouting. Kids clamber over each other to see what is going to happen.

The actor, Oscar Nkhoma, fumbles with his fly -- and pulls out -- not the real thing -- but a "lifelike" wooden stick.

Many of the women shriek with laughter, but the younger Felistas Mlongola adopts a more serious expression. "Normally people cannot talk about such things," she says.

"They feel it is not proper to talk about in front of children. And especially today when then were demonstrating how to put on a condom -- doing that in front of a lot of people, it's a taboo -- it is not supposed to happen that way," she adds.

The actors continue the sketch -- now they are explaining how to get rid of a condom after use. Even if the spectators are having a good laugh, the theme is deadly serious. The HIV/AIDS pandemic is ravaging the country - in some areas up to 25 per cent of the adult population are infected.

Since 1985 Malawi's life expectancy has fallen from 46 to 37 years. More than 800,000 people -- out of Malawi's population of 10 million -- are currently living with HIV/AIDS.

The pandemic has been one of the biggest factors in the current food crisis sweeping across southern Africa, with millions of infected agricultural workers unable to tend their fields, and an increasing number of households being headed by the eldest children.

"The situation is really, really bad. In every village you will see fresh graves," says Matthews Nyirenda, HIV/AIDS project officer from Malawi Red Cross.

"There are so many funerals every week -- everybody knows somebody who died from AIDS. There are a lot of sick people in the villages, and the worst thing is that many of them don't even know they are infected," he says.

More than 60 per cent of the hospital beds are occupied by AIDS patients. Most new cases occur among young people aged between 15 and 24, with infection rates among girls six times higher than for boys.

"There has been this trend among older men in their 40s and 50s that very young girls are free from the virus, and having sex with a virgin might even cure the disease," Nyirenda explains. "As a result, girls get more infected than boys of the same age."

This demonstrates the huge amount of misinformation surrounding HIV/AIDS. Furthermore, there is a big gap between knowing how to prevent the disease and putting this knowledge into practice:

"Young people say they know how to protect themselves, but they don't do it. And they cannot just abstain -- because sex is a natural thing," says 17-year-old Felistas.

Boston George, a 16-year-old boy who just dropped out of school, adds: "Many boys don't feel you can be protected by a condom."

Matthews Nyirenda shrugs and admits that it is one thing is to spread the message, and quite another to get young people to change their behaviour. "It is understandable that in remote villages like this one, they do not get a lot of information. But it is scary that HIV prevalence in urban areas is extremely high -- also among well-educated people," he says.

A recent World Bank assessment estimated that, by 2005, at least a quarter and as many as a half of professionals in urban-based sectors will die from AIDS if current prevalance rates continue.

There is no doubt that limited use of condoms as well as limited openness about AIDS are among the main reasons for the spread of the virus. So the kind of information that the villagers have got today through the AIDS drama is desperately needed. And at least one spectator has learnt something. "One thing I have never seen before and I have never heard about is how to put on a condom. But today I have learnt how to put it on," says 18-year-old Charles Banda.

Next week, the Red Cross volunteers will repeat their performance in another village -- trying to get the message across. And hopefully little by little it will help to break the vicious circle of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.