Couple fights AIDS virus, taboos


By Kurt Shillinger, Globe Correspondent, 10/12/99


LUSAKA, Zambia - Though physically small, Kabanda Syamalevwe

was once the kind of man who embodied his Tonga tribe's ideals of

masculinity. He ruled his wife and children as lord and master. He took other

women. His peers, he recalls now with laughter, called him a bull.


But one afternoon in 1993 his world collapsed. A friend walked into a bar

where Syamalevwe was having a few drinks and showed him a story in the

local newspaper revaling that a school teacher had tested positive for HIV.

The woman in the accompanying photo was his wife.


''Imagine the feeling of helplessness and uselessness,'' he said during a recent



For most African women, having the AIDS virus is a multiple curse. It can

lead to rejection and violence. Most women contract HIV from their

husbands or boyfriends, but few men willingly accept responsibility. At the

time Brigitte Syamalevwe learned she carried the AIDS virus, she and

Kabanda had been married for 21 years. She had never strayed. Both knew

he was the source of her infection.


Instead of destroying their marriage, however, the personal crisis of HIV

started the Syamalevwes on the kind of long and fundamental reassessment

of their attitudes about sexuality and marriage that experts increasingly

believe is the only true solution to Africa's AIDS epidemic. It is a process

that involves breaking old molds, elevating the status of women at home and

in society, and redefining what it means to be a man.


''Men must be confronted with change,'' said Kabanda, a former health clinic

officer. ''Our cultural upbringing has a bearing on our sexual patterns. So we

need to focus on how social expectations shape our behavior as men and



In the six years since they learned they were infected, Brigitte and Kabanda,

who live in the northern Zambian town of Kitwe, have tried to understand

why men behave the way they do, how women contribute to that behavior,

and how to change. Both are now involved in community-based HIV/AIDS

education. In their spare time, and with their own resources, they run

workshops for men and women on sexuality and marriage.


They are now in the process of creating Africa's first Society of Men Against

AIDS, a male version of programs in countries like Senegal that encourage

open discussion about behavior and AIDS among women.


As their story spreads, the Syamalevwes are quickly becoming a model for

how to change sexual dynamics in sub-Saharan Africa. Responses to the

AIDS crisis in the region have tended to focus on women because they are

more vulnerable and also more likely to attend clinics and obtain information.

But that has not slowed the epidemic, and a consensus is beginning to grow

that more emphasis needs to be placed on male behavior. A study released

last month at an international AIDS conference in Zambia, for example,

indicated that 80 percent of men in that country have multiple sexual



''Men are the cutting edge,'' said Salif Sow, an expert on infectious diseases

at Dakar University in Senegal. ''The problem is that we're always talking

about women, but they don't have the power to protect themselves. Men are

the key to HIV transmission.''


At the conference last month in Lusaka, Zambian Health Minister Nkandu

Luo actually suggested that the time had come for African women to riot

against men. But the Syamalevwes have a different approach: they work with

each other to overcome the kind of gender inequities that have helped AIDS

to flourish.


It hasn't always been easy. The paternalistic influences of Kabanda's Tonga

tribe left deep marks on their marriage. His father had three wives. Men

were taught to be physically strong and emotionally remote. Women were to

be weak.


''If I called him on an issue, he would punish me by coming back home later

than usual,'' Brigitte said. ''It threatened him.''


HIV changed the scenario. Brigitte had herself tested against Kabanda's

wishes, and then did not tell him. She had seen some of her students struggle

with losing their parents to AIDS, and worried about how her own children

would cope in the same situation. After Kabanda read the story in the

newspaper, it took several months for him to muster the courage to find out

his own status.


Faced with the sudden prospect of shortened lives, the couple began

breaking free from prescribed molds. Kabanda paid less heed to peer

pressure, stopped sleeping around, and took a more active role in raising the

couple's 11 children. He became more supportive of Brigitte's career and

flouted a traditional taboo by having a vasectomy.


Brigitte also changed. She became more assertive. Whatever Kabanda

expected of her, she held him accountable as well. ''Women are

collaborators in their own servitude,'' she said. ''Pregnant women are

emotionally weakened in the relationship, so I was Kabanda's slave for a

long time. This experience has given me a chance to get liberated from men,

to become an equal partner.''


The Syamalevwes are a rare case. Kabanda was willing to make changes.

Most Africans find it hard to discuss sex openly, and many women risk

violence, blame, and rejection for having HIV. The couple say they talk

about sex and AIDS with their family, but so far have not insisted that their

children be tested for HIV.


In one of their first workshops, in 1994, Brigitte and Kabanda asked the

women to go home that night and ask their men for sex, knowing that their

culture frowns on women who do so. The next day, 23 of the 24 women

reported being harassed over the request.


''It should be appreciated that in our culture, promiscuity is associated with

women,'' Kabanda said. ''It was never in our vocabulary to say that men

were promiscuous. They reject it because of what the word attaches to their

masculinity and superiority.''


A groundbreaking program in Botswana underscores how difficult it is to

change deeply-rooted attitudes. Over the past 18 months, the

Norwegian-funded Men, Sex, and AIDS has run workshops to encourage

men to talk openly about sexuality. Pilot programs modeled after the project

are scheduled to start next month in Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Swaziland.


By the end of each three-day workshop, most of the men overcome their

initial shyness. But it is too early to tell if the work will lead to changes in



''Men are difficult to reach. They don't go to clinics and can't be bothered to

get information,'' said MacDonald Maswabi, the program's director, in a

phone interview from Botswana's capital, Gabarone. ''So our main concern

for now is creating a place where men can go without being labeled. Many of

the men at our workshops admit they need to change their lifestyle, but it will

take a very long time, assuming we do have an impact.''


The Syamalevwes, however, say that it is often the men who reject or

ridicule their message publicly who come back privately for help. Many men

are afraid to show weakness, they say, and conform to peer pressure. But

what Brigitte tells them is simple: ''You don't lose your manhood through

good actions.''


This story ran on page A21 of the Boston Globe on 10/12/99.

Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.