AIDS AND THE AFRICAN PROSTITUTION

AIDS AND THE AFRICAN PROSTITUTION

Prostitution plays key role in fueling Africa's

AIDS crisis

 

By Wil Haygood, Globe Staff, 10/11/99

 

CARLETONVILLE, South Africa - Ten women are striding up a dirt

road in this old mining town. Emily Ntsekawla is giggling, kicking at

weeds. Gladys Nicholas, all lipsticked up, is scanning the distance. It's

midafternoon. The air is clear and the ladies are going to work.

 

They reach an opening in the middle of the adjacent bush and take seats on

tin cans. A few have condoms in the palms of their hands. There's a tall and

lean miner coming just now. Nicholas chats with the miner. Then she

vanishes with him into the bush, twisting like a schoolgirl.

 

The women are prostitutes. And out here, in a stretch of rural landscape

about 45 miles west of Johannesburg, it is mean work. Malaria-causing

mosquitoes are one thing; the real possibility of robbery another. But the

most lethal revelation is this: Carletonville has one of the highest rates of

AIDS in the world.

 

''In young women 25 years old and under, two out of three of them are

already infected with AIDS'' in Carletonville, says Brian Williams, a

researcher at the University of Pretoria who has been studying the area for

the past year. ''So, two out of three girls will die before the age of 30.''

 

Health officials say prostitution is playing a key role in fueling the AIDS crisis

in sub-Saharan Africa.

 

But Emily Ntsekawla, a prostitute who is 22, doesn't pay much attention to

statistics, or mortality rates. She's more concerned with everyday survival out

here in the bush.

 

''Sometimes you get somebody who takes your money and runs,'' she says.

 

Thugs shot Ntsekawla six times earlier this year. ''I was praying that God

would take me,'' she says. ''I was in such pain.''

 

Ntsekawla wears a crude surgically-implanted metal device in her left arm

that helps heal the bones that were shattered from the shooting.

 

''This is like a no man's land, so you have gangsters who put themselves into

a position of governing,'' says Zodwa Mzaidume, a counselor with the

Mothusimpilo Outreach Project, an AIDS educational program funded by

the American and British governments.

 

Mzaidume has been teaching the women about safe-sex practices.

Mzaidume confesses she can't watch every woman going into the bush, and

knows that not all of them will insist that the men use condoms.

 

''Nobody protects the women,'' she says. ''They are open to any type of

harassment - police or criminal. Some guys even rape them.''

 

The women - who prefer the title ''sex worker'' - all live three miles down the

road, in Leeupoort, a squatter camp that one can only enter by traversing

wicked dirt roads. There is no electricity or running water in Leeupoort.

Someone has scrawled ''Tigers Don't Cry'' on the side of one of the

dwellings, as if to underscore that this is no place for the faint of heart. There

are 150 sex workers who live in the squatter camp. Many have their children

with them, kids who can be seen scooting around in the dust during the day.

 

''The hot stuff is 20 rand,'' says Emily Ntsekawla. ''The cold stuff is 6 rand.''

 

The hot stuff is sex. The cold stuff is beer. Twenty rand is the equivalent of

about three American dollars.

 

''There's no time for intimacy,'' says Mzaidume, the outreach counselor. '' It's

pay and go.''

 

Mzaidume is still grieving over Tstelele Phuteho. Phuteho drove the van for

her program, delivering condoms to the ladies in the bush. Hoodlums robbed

the condom deliverer and shot him dead in April. ''I come in here knowing

very well that something could happen to me,'' Mzaidume says, after hiking

into the bush one recent afternoon to check on the women.

 

They are never short of customers. There are three shifts of miners at nearby

Goldfields Mines, which employs more than 7,000 people. Most of the

miners are migrants who live in hostels on the mine company's property.

 

''You've got men living in single-sex hostels without their wives,'' says

Williams, the University of Pretoria researcher. ''What do you think they're

going to do, play backgammon?''

 

Mzaidume has been dispensing more than 80,000 condoms a month, trying

to stem the staggering rate of AIDS infection in this area.

 

''When I first met these sex workers,'' she says, ''they knew nothing about

AIDS or STD's (sexually transmitted diseases). It took me three months to

get them to accept me.''

 

Xoliswa Jaho, who is 36, has worked here for three years, after arriving

from Cape Town. ''I was working in the kitchen of a house,'' she says,

adding that by working as a prostitute, she easily quadruples the salary she

would have made continuing to work as a domestic.

 

Khanyisiele Hlongwene, 23, says the work is not that grueling. ''Some men

look at me and discharge before they even touch me,'' she says, laughing.

 

Gladys Nicholas, whose family thinks she is scouring the country, job

hunting, has dreams. ''My dream is always to get a better job than a sex

worker,'' she says. ''I would like to have a clerical job.''

 

In recent months, Nicholas, Hlongwene, Jaho, and the other women here

have had to dig into their savings for coffins and train fare. Three of their

colleagues fell dead from AIDS. The bodies had to be shipped back to their

families.

 

This story ran on page A25 of the Boston Globe on 10/11/99.

Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.