A lesson in dying; Once a refuge from AIDS, Zambia’s schools are now its latest victims

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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LUSAKA, ZAMBIA – His immune system buckled from tuberculosis. His weight slid to 84 pounds. But Ackim Sakala, a man whose life is built around sharing knowledge, knew he had to keep a secret.

“As soon as people know you have HIV, you are put on a death list,” said Mr. Sakala, a seventh-grade teacher here in the Zambian capital. “You are considered a dead person. People are not ready to know.”

He tried to convince people that his TB was just TB, not a sign that the virus that causes AIDS was racking his body. He never told his students the reason he missed eight months of school, lying in bed and coughing up blood.

The schools of southern Africa were once held up as a great hope against the disease, which now infects almost one in five adult Zambians. Schools were the place where children could learn about the disease and how to avoid it.

But now, Zambia’s education system has been one of the institutions hardest hit by AIDS. Mr. Sakala is one of thousands of Zambian teachers fighting AIDS. By some measures, teachers here are more likely to have the disease than those who are less educated. Their illnesses have left classrooms empty and children fending for themselves.

“Our education system has collapsed,” said Kenneth Kaunda, who was Zambia’s president for its first 27 years as an independent nation.

When Zambia gained independence from Britain in 1964, Mr. Kaunda’s government made major investments in education, using revenue raised in the nation’s copper mines. The number of university-educated black Zambians increased from 100 to 35,000.

“And then came AIDS,” he said. “It has hit hard on teachers. All these graduates, a good number of them are gone. I meet some of them when I go to South Africa, Lesotho, places they have moved to. But most of them are in the grave because of HIV/AIDS.”

At Silverest Basic School, a 1,000-student campus on the Great East Road outside Lusaka, headmaster Harrison Mwaanga counts his blessings: “This year we have been fortunate – no teachers have died.”

In the past few years at Silverest, at least six young teachers – four female, two male – have died of AIDS or what colleagues suspected was AIDS. (The disease brings stigma to those who have it in Zambia, so few people are open about their status.) Three female students have died of tuberculosis, a disease that often attacks the weakened immune systems of AIDS sufferers in southern Africa.

The last teacher to die at Silverest was Charity Mwansa, who taught history and home economics.

“She was a very good teacher – loose, funny,” said 18-year-old Beatrice Muzyemba, who was one of Ms. Mwansa’s students. “She wasn’t all that strict. I remember everything from her class.”

Beatrice said even though there was never any formal announcement of the cause of Ms. Mwansa’s death, “We all knew. She had been suffering for a long time. She seemed devastated by it. I would have killed myself.” Ms. Mwansa left behind a 3-year-old child.

It’s notoriously difficult to get accurate statistics on infection rates in Africa. Depending on whose research you believe, between 16 and 22 percent of Zambian adults are HIV positive, a range that has remained largely unchanged for a decade.

Estimates of the infection rate among teachers have been at or above the national average. One study found the death rate among young Zambian teachers was 70 percent higher than the national average.

“I definitely believe the infection rate is higher among teachers,” said Elijah Mwaba, a 20-year teacher and founder of the Teachers Against HIV/AIDS Network. “We are a very vulnerable group.”

Mr. Mwaba said he had recently been in Livingstone, a tourist city of about 80,000 people. In the previous year, 27 teachers had died of AIDS there. Mr. Mwaba said he had lost five “very close friends” – fellow teachers all – over the same span.

“It is a disaster,” Mr. Kaunda said. “Zambia’s education system in three, four, five years – unless we do something to repair the damage – we are in real trouble. I don’t think we have a future in education.”

While research into the subject is limited, educators offer a few possibilities why teachers appear to be at higher risk. Teachers, while paid only about $1,000 a year, are considered prominent local citizens, particularly in rural areas. That can make them more appealing to members of the opposite sex.

“The country looks up to them, and they have an income,” said Barbara Chilangwa, Zambia’s minister of education. “As a result, they may be more likely to have more than one sexual partner.”

They’re also more mobile than most Zambians, who often spend their entire lives living in a single village. A typical teacher might grow up in one village, attend teacher training college in a distant city, and then be assigned by the Ministry of Education to a teaching job in another village far from home. After a couple of years, the ministry often moves them again. All that movement increases the likelihood that teachers will have multiple sexual partners, some say.

A teacher’s early death isn’t the only way that the disease can affect education. Before they die, teachers typically have several months-long spans of illness, usually from opportunistic infections such as tuberculosis or malaria.

Schools react in a variety of ways. Sometimes they merge classes together, putting 100 or more students in a single room.

“That’s not teaching,” said Musukuma Denson, the senior teacher at Silverest. “That’s doing what you can.”

Other times, class is simply canceled until the teacher is well enough to return. Peter Chanda, a ninth-grade teacher who is HIV-positive, missed most of the last school year when he had a particularly bad case of tuberculosis and sores covered parts of his body. “I was down for six months,” he said. His students didn’t have a substitute and were expected to teach themselves and each other. Few even bothered to take the national exams at year’s end.

“Last year, my math teacher died,” said Ivor Telebwe, a 19-year-old 12th-grader at Kabulonga Boys School in a Lusaka suburb. “He died of AIDS. We knew it.” He wasn’t replaced for three weeks, canceling class. Most of the students failed the national math exams because of it, he said.

Even before the teacher died, he’d missed several months while bedridden. “Even when he was in class, he was too depressed and slow to teach,” Ivor said. “You felt bad if you asked him questions.”

But some teachers do more harm when they come to school than when they stay home. Sexual relationships between teachers and students are, while not exactly the norm, not rare in Zambia. Many educators worry that teachers may be spreading the virus to a new generation.

Students at several schools said relationships between male teachers and female students are an accepted part of school. Ivor said the math teacher who died “went out with a lot of the girls at school. We knew those girls are probably infected, so we know to stay away from them.”

High school girls said they have to remain on watch for teachers. Monica Phiri, an 18-year-old student at Kabulonga Girls School, said her art teacher recently approached her.

“He started looking at me strangely, telling me to stay behind class. I told my friends about it. He told me he wanted a relationship. ‘This could turn into marriage,’ he said. Imagine hearing that! He just wanted to use me up!”

Nkole Chanda, another student at the school, said a teacher approached her before the national exams, a year-end rite of passage in Zambian schools. “He said, ‘I know you are scared about the exams,'” she said. “‘Don’t you want to see a copy of the test early? But there’s a condition: You have to go out with me.'”

Nkole said quite a few of her friends have dated and had sex with their teachers. “I tell them: ‘You don’t know how many girls he’s slept with,'” she said.

The girls who attend their school said the campus had developed a reputation. “People say if you want to get AIDS, go to Kabulonga Girls,” Monica said.

“The teacher-pupil relationships are a big problem,” said Remmy Mukonka, a music teacher who founded the Anti-AIDS Teachers Association of Zambia. “It’s a vicious chain of HIV/AIDS.”

Ms. Chilangwa, the education minister, said teacher-student relationships aren’t common. “I don’t want to put a picture that this happens a lot – we condemn it strongly,” she said. “But the teacher in a rural area may be the only person with an income. So the young girls might want to have relations with them.”

Official policy is that a teacher caught with a student is fired. But Ms. Chilangwa said that’s rare.

One of the most popular songs in Zambia is “Aticha,” performed by 32-year-old rapper MC Wabwino. It attacks teachers who have relationships with their students. He said he wrote the song after hearing about a Lusaka girl giving birth to a child fathered by her teacher.

“A lot of people have been secretive about it,” he said. “Now people are more aware. Girls are very vulnerable. Especially in a rural area, where a teacher is considered something of a god.”

After he recorded the song, he got mostly support from teachers and parents. “I heard from one teacher who called and condemned me for the song. But the majority of teachers support me. They know what their colleagues do. It’s not something that a lot of teachers do. But some do.”

Some Zambians say the arrival of AIDS has led men to seek younger sex partners. A young girl is less likely to be HIV-positive, reducing a man’s risk of contracting the virus. In addition, a myth persists in some circles that a man with AIDS can be “cleansed” by having sex with a virgin – in some cases an infant.

“Some people think that to rape a child is a sure way to cure AIDS,” Mr. Kaunda said. “They cannot think of anything else. It’s a very terrible thing. Someone has gone mad.”

At Silverest, Beatrice Muzyemba and her friend Samuel Tembo, 20, didn’t like the way some male teachers were acting toward girls. Since they’re both active in the school’s drama club, they decided they would try to get their message across through a play.

Beatrice played a schoolgirl who had done something wrong. Tembo played a teacher.

“I was supposed to be punished for what I had done,” Beatrice said. “He told me to come to his office. He told me instead of a punishment, I could have another option and have sex with him.”

In the play, Beatrice gives in to the teacher’s demands and contracts HIV.

They put on the play in front of the entire school, including all the teachers. Beatrice said she couldn’t tell if it had made a difference in any teacher’s actions, but that a few teachers seemed “uncomfortable.”

Zambians are tackling the problem of AIDS in schools in a number of ways. Mr. Mukonka’s group is launching a project to put boxes of condoms in the faculty bathrooms of Zambian schools. But he said they run into opposition from some headmasters: “They say, ‘If there are condoms in the schools, the teachers will just use them on my students!’

“We tell teachers: The students need you. They need you in the classroom, healthy and teaching. Use a condom.”

Mr. Mwaba’s group leads AIDS education programs for teachers and others around the country. But he’s found teachers sometimes aren’t willing to view themselves as at risk of infection. “Most of them believe HIV is for the rich, the gays or people in town,” he said. “People who are not educated respond more positively to AIDS information than those who are not educated.”

Government officials encourage all Zambians to be tested for HIV – indeed, some leaders are now calling for mandatory testing nationwide. But some teachers are still fearful of what a test might tell them.

“I’ve never been tested,” said Clementine Chama, a teacher at Kaunda Square Basic School in Lusaka, where she heads the student Anti-AIDS Club. “Once you are told you have HIV, very few will accept you.”

She told a story about a teacher at the school. “A girlfriend of his had died of the disease, and he was thinking maybe he had the same disease,” she said. “He wanted to be tested. I advised him to think twice about the consequences. He decided not to get tested.”

Finally, the government announced last year that it would, for the first time, make available to some teachers the antiretroviral drugs that have prolonged the lives of thousands of HIV-positive people in Western nations. But Ms. Chilangwa said there were funds available to supply drugs to only about 150 teachers nationwide. By some estimates, there are more than 10,000 teachers with HIV in Zambia.

How will the drugs be distributed? “First-come, first-served,” she said. “I can’t think of any other way.”

Staff Writer Joshua Benton spent six weeks in Zambia last fall on a Pew Fellowship in International Journalism. More stories and photos from his trip are posted on his blog at www.zambiastories.com.