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AFRICA'S DEATH SENTENCE : Husbands Infect Their Wives, Mothers Infect Their Children. By the Late 1990s, an Estimated 15 Million People Will Be Dying of AIDS.

March 01, 1992|Scott Kraft | Scott Kraft, The Times' Johannesburg bureau chief, has reported from Africa since 1986.

LIKE MOST IMPORTANT LESSONS of life in Zimbabwe, Angeline Ndhlovu's begins with a story. It is the tale of two teen-age monkeys, a time-worn allegory for the 1990s and the story of Ndhlovu's life.

One day, the two young monkeys tell their father they want to go to the river to play. But he discourages them, warning that the river holds a dangerous animal with a mouth as big as a hippo's mouth, teeth as sharp as a lion's teeth and a tail as strong as an elephant's tail.

The young monkeys aren't convinced, though. So they ask the hyena, who scoffs at the father's warning. "Go ahead," the hyena says. "Your father is just trying to stop you from enjoying yourself."

The vulture agrees: "Ha, ha, ha," he says. "There's nothing like that in the river." So the monkeys go to the riverbank, where a pair of beady crocodile eyes watches them from atop the water. Quietly, the crocodile begins to move. His huge tail sways. He moves faster and faster until, before the monkeys can even squeal, they are swallowed up.

Angeline Ndhlovu ( inn-DLO-voo ) pauses as several hundred 14- and 15-year-olds, sitting cross-legged on Lord Malvern School's auditorium floor, wait breathlessly for the name of this evil crocodile. "There is a big crocodile called AIDS out there," Ndhlovu says, "and he is coming to swallow the whole human race." What the former nursery school teacher doesn't say, though, is that she, at age 28, is among the millions in Africa who have been bitten by the crocodile and are waiting to die.

Women in Africa, in fact, are more likely to get AIDS than women anywhere else in the world. Four of every five women with AIDS live on this continent, where, not coincidentally, women have little power in the boardroom and even less in the bedroom. Their subservient status in these societies is one reason AIDS is spreading 100 times more rapidly in Africa than in the United States or Europe.

Angeline Ndhlovu's case is depressingly typical. She contracted the AIDS virus from her husband but was powerless to divorce him because he had paid her parents the equivalent of $150 for her hand in marriage. Their child, Felicity, lived two painful years before dying of complications from AIDS in her mother's arms. At the funeral, the father's family blamed Angeline.

She was fired from two teaching jobs when her employers discovered she had AIDS, and, later, she tried to hang herself with an electrical cord. She now has found some peace by warning schoolchildren about the disease. But she remains tormented by thoughts of her 8-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter, healthy children soon to be orphans.

"I would love to see my children through a good life," Ndhlovu says, her gentle, round face revealing a newly discovered self-assurance. "But I think that I have not much time left to live." She shakes her head slowly. "Life is bad," she says.

Life is very bad these days in Africa, where the World Health Organization estimates that AIDS has killed 1 million men, women and children and where the AIDS virus has infected at least 6 million more, imperiling weak economic systems, arresting Third World development and forever altering the cherished and steady rhythms of African society.

And the holocaust has just begun.

AFRICA IS HOME TO MORE THAN A TENTH OF the world's people, yet it has 64% of the AIDS cases, according to WHO. The agency forecasts that by the late 1990s, 15 million people in Africa will be infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, which causes AIDS and for which there is no known cure. Because nearly all adults develop the fatal symptoms of AIDS within 10 years of infection, WHO estimates that a fourth of black Africa's work force will be wiped out within 20 years. And the average life span in Africa, once expected to reach 60, will fall to just 47 years, according to the World Bank.

The contrast between the AIDS epidemics in Africa and America is striking. In the United States, the disease has primarily affected homosexuals and intravenous drug users. Despite its recent upsurge, heterosexual transmission still accounts for only 6% of U.S. AIDS cases. American men with AIDS still outnumber women patients 7 to 1, and AIDS in young children remains a rarity.

In Africa, though, AIDS is a family disease, afflicting roughly equal numbers of men and women. Of all the cases in Africa, 80% are transmitted by heterosexual sex, and nearly all the others are transmitted from mother to child during pregnancy or birth, epidemiologists working on the continent say. (Homosexuality and IV drug use account for less than 1% of AIDS cases in Africa.)

WHO predicts that 3 million African children will die of AIDS in the next decade. Ten million more will lose one or both parents.

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