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February 20, 2007

STORY: The Kingdom of Swaziland ; Kingdom of HIV/AIDS

Swaziland is one of the last monarchies of the world. And the king takes full advantage of it, with big houses, fancy cars, a bourgeois lifestyle, and the time-honored tradition of acquiring a new wife each year. He has 14 now.

His polygamous-ness probably contributes to his complete cover-up of HIV/AIDS. In fact, the government virtually denies that there’s a problem, and subsequently no one is really allowed to talk about it. Swaziland has a 40% HIV/AIDS rate. 50% in young adults and 56% of pregnant women.

Can you imagine what that means? Half of the people who I see on the street or in the market have AIDS. Everyone knows someone who has recently died (but they die of other things like TB, so people can continue to avoid talking about IT). And an entire generation is missing… it’s a culture of grannies and orphaned children. Right now the average life span is in the 40s, and they say by 2010, less than three years from now, the average life span in Swaziland will be 29 years old. Absolutely unbelievable. Unbelievable.

And the king still denies it.

Deb worked on and AIDS project here six years ago, so we went to visit some of her friends. Pilile is a spark of a woman, running around working on all sorts of projects, and introducing us to every other person on the street. She works for AMICAALL, the Alliance of Mayors Initiatives for Community Action on AIDS at the Local Level.

Father Murphy moved here 30 years ago from Ireland as a long-term missionary, and has since started one of the most comprehensive child support centers in the country. They serve more than 1000 children afflicted by AIDS each day, though their soup kitchen, school and after-school programs, and 200-child orphanage. He was one of those dry-humored Irishmen, telling us about the AIDS situation with smirky statements about the king and such.

This woman walked up to us and said, “Hi. I’m positive, and I’m doing great. I eat fresh vegetables and fruit juice everyday, avoid stress, and keep a good outlook on life.” Turns out she volunteers for SASO, an organization of HIV positive people who do education about AIDS and help people live well. She found out she was positive in 2002 when her husband died… turns out he had a second wife. Her two children are healthy.

We visited one of AMICAALL’s “Care Points”—a place in a township where they help orphans, provide food, and educate the community.

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