AIDS Cuts Swath Through Africa's

AIDS Cuts Swath Through Africa's Teachers

 

New York Times, August 14, 2000

 

By NORIMITSU ONISHI

 

BAZRA-NATTIS, Ivory Coast -- Among the precious few classrooms in this village in West Africa, one squat two-room building is no longer in use. A green bicycle chain looped around the door handles bars entry.

 

A peek through the shutters shows desks and chairs, dusty from disuse, though in good enough condition to be used when schoolchildren gravitate back in September from the surrounding yam and corn fields.

 

          Most likely, though, the building will stay shut. No new teacher has been assigned to it since the previous occupant died of AIDS in 1997. Six teachers a week in this nation of 15 million people die of AIDS, a 1998 government study found, and           officials believe the number has only gone up since then.

 

          And so this small village in the heart of the Ivory Coast has come to represent the big problems facing this country and others in Africa, where AIDS has weakened the already troubled educational systems.

 

          Soldiers and long-distance truck drivers have been particularly affected by AIDS in Africa because they move around without their families in the course of their work and are more likely to have a variety of sexual partners. But, paradoxically, the study found that AIDS had also affected teachers, who are often the only educated people in rural areas.

 

          Most African teachers are men, who, especially in Muslim countries, are more likely to be educated beyond primary school. The elite status afforded by their education makes such men particularly susceptible when, young and single, they enter remote villages for their first teaching jobs: young village women compete for their attention. The result is multiple sexual relationships, made riskier because of ignorance about AIDS and because the men are unlikely to use condoms.

 

          This country, like most others on the continent, remains ill-prepared to deal with the effects of AIDS on education. If unchecked, the trend is expected to prove catastrophic in the near future. Already, many classrooms are overcrowded as teachers take on pupils whose previous teachers died of AIDS; other schools simply remain closed because replacements cannot be found.

 

          Here in Bazra-Nattis, after the teacher had died, the schoolchildren ate their meals inside the building -- until last year, when a strong wind blew off the aluminum roof one night.

 

          "We concluded that the same misfortune that had claimed the teacher struck again," said Nahangnena Koné, the principal of the Bazra-Nattis public primary school. "So we closed the building for good."

 

          In many other African nations, where a chronic shortage of teachers is only one of the symptoms of their ailing schools, AIDS has aggravated their troubles in recent years, according to figures compiled by the Joint United Nations Program on H.I.V./AIDS, or Unaids.

 

          In southern Africa, 1,300 teachers died of AIDS in Zambia in the first 10 months of 1998 -- that is about two-thirds of all teachers trained each year and more than double the number who died in 1997.

 

          In the Central African Republic, between 1996 and 1998, the number of retiring teachers was almost matched by the number of teachers who died of AIDS.

 

          "AIDS constitutes one of the biggest crises and the biggest threats to the global education agenda that we have known," Dr. Peter Piot, the executive director of Unaids, said at a World Education Forum in Senegal in April. "There is no other single factor in the world today that so systematically undermines the gains of decades of investment in human  resources, education, health and the well-being of nations."

 

          No other continent has been damaged as much by AIDS as this, the world's poorest. Of the estimated 34 million people worldwide who have AIDS or H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, 24 million are believed to be in Africa. The majority of those live in sub-Saharan Africa, whose population of perhaps 610 million is relatively small compared with those in some other regions of the world.

 

          The rates have been highest in southern Africa. In West Africa, where Islam and other factors slowed the spread of AIDS, it is now climbing.

 

          The Ivory Coast, long an economic crossroad as the richest nation in French-speaking Africa, now has the highest rate of AIDS and H.I.V. in the region. Nearly 11 percent of the adult population is believed to carry H.I.V., according to Unaids; 72,000 died of AIDS in 1999. In the cities, spending on education -- for fees and other expenses -- fell by half in households with someone with AIDS.

 

          Here, like elsewhere on the continent, ignorance regarding AIDS and condom use appears to be one of the main causes of the growth of the disease. The difficulty of educating a largely illiterate population is emphasized by the fact that most teachers are not knowledgeable about the disease either.

 

          "In principle, it is normal to rely on the educational sector to help fight back the H.I.V./AIDS epidemic," said Dr. Mamadou Lamine Sakho, an official with Unaids in Abidjan, the commercial capital of the Ivory Coast. "Unfortunately, the educators themselves are poorly informed or not informed at all."

 

          That reality was documented by a government study conducted from September 1996 through August 1998. During that period, 641 educators died of AIDS throughout the Ivory Coast -- 6 a week. In the first year, about 64 percent of all teachers' deaths were AIDS related; during the second year, the rate rose to 69 percent.

 

          Dr. Issa Malick Coulibaly, who was the executive director of the Program of the National Fight Against AIDS at the time of the study and was one of its authors, described the effects of AIDS as a "catastrophe for education and consequently for the country."

 

          On average, the teachers had 13 years of experience and would have taught 17 more years, Dr. Coulibaly said. In some remote areas of the country, like Odienné in the northwest, schools have been closed for the last two years because there have been no replacements, he said.

 

          "If nothing is done between now and the year 2005," Dr. Coulibaly said, "there will be 5,000 children who, because of a lack of teachers, will not be able to go to school and will swell the number of street children."

 

          But teachers and private organizations that focus on AIDS education say the government has done little to combat the epidemic in recent years, and any such activities have been frozen since the military seized power last December.

 

          "There has been no follow-through at all since the report came out," said Drigone Bouabi, a former teacher who is H.I.V. positive and founded a group called Virus Village to raise AIDS awareness in rural areas.

 

          In the area surrounding Bazra-Nattis, Mr. Bouabi's private organization has held AIDS workshops for teachers and students alike. Some teachers here said that prior to Mr. Bouabi's efforts, they knew little about AIDS.

 

          "AIDS is not something we talked about," said Mousa Traoré, 27, who has taught here for three years. "It's still a hidden disease. So my knowledge was very superficial. I can't say I knew the proper way to use a condom."

 

          His concerns were echoed by other teachers in the region. In the town of Bahoulifla, south of here, a school has been similarly devastated by the death of a teacher. Douba Vanié Michel, a teacher at the school, expressed concerns similar to those in Bazra-Nattis.

 

          Many teachers said they believed that AIDS had had such an impact on their profession because of the career pattern followed by teachers in the Ivory Coast. Typically, after teachers' college, new graduates are dispatched to rural areas for their first assignments. They are paid very little at the beginning so they must essentially rely on a local village for shelter and food.

 

          "The village chief will usually assign a girl to prepare your meals and take care of you," said Mr. Koné, the principal. "But because you are the only civil servant in the village and are considered an elite, other girls will bring you food simply to tempt you."

 

          Ago Akpoue, a 38-year-old teacher here, added: "You suddenly find yourself in a village with no television -- maybe not even a radio signal -- distractions at all. And there are all these women. For me, I had never spent more than a week in a village. What else can you do?"

 

          The result is that many teachers take on multiple sexual partners. If a teacher goes to a village that has condoms, they often run out and there are no new supplies.

 

          And while many African men are reluctant to use condoms, so are many women, who feel that a man's insistence on wearing a condom suggests that the woman belongs in the rank of prostitutes and other high-risk women. So they will press men to have sex without condoms as proof of their virtue.

 

          "I would say that women are even more reluctant than men to use condoms for that reason," said Solange Chieda Adou, 26, the only woman among the 10 teachers in Bazra-Nattis. "In general, in the villages, many people don't even believe that AIDS exists."

 

          Since the teacher died of AIDS here in 1997, a shortage of teachers has meant that children have been doubled up in classrooms or that they attend school on half-day shifts.

 

          "The students' educational level is very, very low because of the chronic disruptions during the school year," Ms. Adou said.

 

          For instance, last year Mr. Akpoue had a classroom of 110 pupils. That meant he had very little time to get to know any of the students, he said.

 

          In addition, with each pupil having one exercise book for French, one for mathematics and one for other subjects, Mr. Akpoue found himself each day with the daunting task of correcting 330 exercise books. The work had to be done at night by hurricane lamp since there is no electricity in this village.

 

          Mr. Koné, the principal, said that despite the death of their colleague, his teachers remained reluctant to confront the realities of AIDS. Presumably, he said, some were still having sex without condoms; perhaps some even carried the virus.

 

          "I've asked them numerous times to be tested for H.I.V.," Mr. Koné said. "But not one of them has accepted. I am the only one to have been tested."