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HIV/AIDS Reaches Isolated OvaHimba People of Southern Africa - 2002-11-29

The AIDS epidemic has struck one of the most isolated ethnic groups in southern Africa, the OvaHimba people of northern Namibia and southern Angola. But many in the community remain in denial, believing it is a disease of outsiders, and they are largely unaware of how it is spread.

In a small OvaHimba village in northern Namibia, the children are playing a game. They sing and hold hands, as they walk around in a circle. A boy kneels in the center, with his eyes covered. When the singing stops, everybody scatters, and he opens his eyes and gives chase.

Every day, about 20 children come to the home of a woman named Vetuetera, to play games and sing songs, while their parents tend to their cattle and gardens. Vetuetera runs a makeshift pre-school in the small village of Otjijandja Muinjo, not far from the Ruacana dam, on the Angolan border. She teaches the children about OvaHimba culture and traditions.

She points at a group of teenage girls standing nearby, "those girls over there, they were my students! When I started teaching," she said, "I was no older than they are. I had no children of my own."

Now, she has three children. The oldest is 12.

The OvaHimba are one of the most isolated ethnic groups in southern Africa, living much the same way their ancestors have for thousands of years. They are fiercely proud of their culture and traditions. Although they want development, they want to have it without sacrificing their unique way of life.

It is rare to see an OvaHimba, especially a woman, wearing Western clothes. Instead, Vetuetera and the other village women go bare-breasted in their distinctive traditional attire. They wear short skirts and ornate hairpieces made of goat skin, and layers of jewelry made from leather and metal. The women smear their bodies with a paste of red ochre and animal fat, to protect their exposed skin from the harsh desert sun. The same paste coats the long, thick braids in their hair, making them look like red ropes.

When Namibia was ruled by apartheid South Africa, the OvaHimba were largely denied education. That has slowly begun to change during the nearly 13 years since Namibia's independence, but most of the village children still do not attend school. Few OvaHimba adults can read or write.

Vetuetera says the lack of education makes it hard to get jobs outside the OvaHimba community, reinforcing not only their isolation, but also their poverty and political marginalization.

"Our children should be educated, like any other ethnic group," she said. "so, they can come and uplift our community. Because, we know we are very far behind, compared to other people, and the only thing that can solve this is education."

But for the OvaHimba, education and jobs are a double-edged sword. Both require OvaHimba people to leave their communities, wear Western clothes and interact with the outside world. As they see it, the outside world is dangerous. Now, the OvaHimba are facing a new threat from outside their community, HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

The chief community liaison in the region for the Ministry of Women's Affairs and Child Welfare is Marianne Shalumbu. She says HIV has slowly worked its way into the OvaHimba population by people who have left and then returned, infected with HIV. Some of these returnees are men, who leave in search of work. Others are teenage girls, who leave to finish their education.

Younger children can attend day school near their villages, until the seventh grade. But there are no secondary schools in their remote part of northern Namibia, so when they reach the age of 12 or 13, they are sent away to boarding schools. Ms. Shalumbu says the girls are sometimes sexually abused or raped, and return to their communities pregnant, or HIV-positive.

"Some of them have gone even to the extent of keeping their children three to four years in the same grade, to avoid the child going over to secondary school, because they want to protect the child from exploitation," she said.

Other parents, she says, pull their children out of school entirely, when they reach the seventh grade. If a girl does return home from school pregnant, or HIV-positive, she can be ostracized. It is simply not acceptable to bring illness into the community from the outside world, which is still viewed with much suspicion.

There is a strong sense of denial among the OvaHimba that AIDS is actually affecting them. The pre-school teacher, Vetuetera, says she thinks it is only a problem for other ethnic groups.

"I guess it is possible that there are some people here who might have AIDS," she said, "because I understand you can walk around with this disease in your body without knowing it. I have never seen any OvaHimba person die of it."

She acknowledges, however, that a number of children in her village have lost their fathers or mothers to disease, but she believes they were, in her words, just normal diseases, not AIDS. Vetuetera admits, however, that more young people have been dying in recent years.

"It is completely different now. When I was growing up, you would never find a person of my age dying," she said. "The only people who died were very old. But nowadays, it is very common that young people of childbearing age, we are dying. And we leave children behind."

The pre-school teacher has all kinds of theories about why more young people are dying today. She thinks maybe it is because the OvaHimba are taking too many Western medications, instead of using traditional herbal remedies. Or maybe, she says, it has something to do with the immunizations they give their children nowadays.

But Vetuetera does know people who have died of AIDS, people from other ethnic groups who live in neighboring communities.

"Right now, we are living in fear, because a woman in the next village apparently died of AIDS," she said. "We drank beer out of the same cup, and so, we are afraid some of us might have contracted this disease from her."

Health workers in Namibia have spent years teaching people that HIV is spread mainly by sexual contact, not by eating or drinking after someone with AIDS. But mass-media campaigns have not reached the isolated Ovahimba, who rarely even listen to the radio. Local government officials, together with the U.N. Children's Fund, UNICEF, are trying to educate them about AIDS. But UNICEF fears the disease will already have spread too far among the Ovahimba by the time those lessons sink in.

UNICEF and the Namibian government are trying to use pre-school programs, like the one Vetuetera runs, to educate the next generation of OvaHimba about how to protect themselves from AIDS. But first, they have to teach the teachers.

The health ministry is sending field workers into rural areas to try to reach the OvaHimba. But Ms. Shalumbu of the Ministry of Women's Affairs says, as far as she knows, none of those counselors are actually OvaHimba themselves.

"They do hear this information, it does reach them," she said. "But I think that it is quite important, if they could get somebody out of their own community, who could convince them that this is possible to happen to you, and me as an OvaHimba person."

Even if there were OvaHimba health workers, they would have to be very careful not to push too hard in trying to change mindsets and behaviors, or they would be seen as trying to dilute the Ovahimba culture. Vetuetera says, some of the elders in her community accuse her of no longer acting like a proper OvaHimba woman. They say she is too outspoken and modern.