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AIDS Plants Crop of Death in Africa

By Jon Jeter, Washington Post, Sunday 22 December 1999; Page A1

CHEGUTU, Zimbabwe - Planting season is just around the corner, and were this any other year, Mark Magaya would be waiting anxiously for the first good spring rain to soften the coarse soil for his plow.

But things are different this year. Magaya sleeps most of the day. His legs tremble when he wanders more than a few yards from his tiny mud hut. AIDS has pilfered his muscular physique and he depends on his wife to bathe him, clothe him, help him to his feet when visitors arrive. The tuberculosis that occupies his lungs makes every breath a chore.

There will be no harvest this year.

"I am too weak to farm," he said one recent afternoon while lying on the floor of his home. "Usually, I grow enough maize to feed my wife and baby girl, and then I sell the surplus. That gets us through the year. But this is the second year that I've been unable to farm, and I don't know how we will make it. My family survives on handouts from friends and family. My condition grows worse from worry and hunger."

This is Africa's dry season. As surely as drought, as swiftly as locusts, AIDS is devouring this continent's cash crops by idling the once able-bodied farmers who work the land.

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to two-thirds of the world's 33.4 million people living with AIDS, and the mostly agrarian economies here are doubly cursed. Nowhere are people more dependent on strong backs and sturdy legs for survival, yet no population on Earth is as feeble.

AIDS, isolated largely to the urban poor and gay men in the Western world, has cut a much wider swath in Africa, coursing like a river along the continent's major trucking routes. Spread mostly through heterosexual contact, AIDS in the Third World is the curse of the young – men and women with children to raise and work to do.

&$34;When the breadwinner gets sick, the whole family shuts down in a sense," said Timothy Stamps, Zimbabwe's health minister. "We're burying people faster than we can replace them, and there just aren't enough hands left to do the work. It's really disrupting how we do business as a nation."

AIDS in Africa has metastasized into a disease whose progression is no longer measured solely by the depletion of a patient's T-cells, but increasingly by every percentage point that is shaved from a nation's gross domestic product. Developing countries are losing their best and brightest workers - farmers, schoolteachers, bricklayers and businessmen - just as governments are trying to fasten their fledgling economies to a global marketplace that doesn't wait for stragglers.

More than 5,000 people with AIDS die each day in Africa, and epidemiologists expect that figure to climb to almost 13,000 by 2005. By that time, health experts say, more people in sub-Saharan Africa will have died from AIDS than in both world wars combined or from the bubonic plague, which killed 20 million people in 14th-century Europe. Ten percent of the work force in southern Africa has been infected, and economists estimate that the shrinking labor pool - coupled with rising health and welfare costs, reduced spending power and lost investment - will slow the continent's rate of economic growth by as much as 1.4 percentage points each year for the next 20 years.

In Africa's most industrialized states, including South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya, the gross domestic product - an economist's best gauge of prosperity - could be 20 percent lower by 2005 than it otherwise would have been.

"HIV is now the single greatest threat to future economic development in Africa," said Callisto Madavo, the World Bank's vice president for Africa.

But it is not Africa's burden alone. AIDS is growing fastest in Asia, and many health experts believe that it may overtake Africa in the number of people infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. That creates a vexing problem for investors in Europe and North America as their economies peak and they increasingly turn to the Third World for profits.

"What happens to the global market economy if there's no one left to do the work?" asked Peter Piot, executive director of the U.N.'s AIDS organization.

That is precisely the problem facing sub-Saharan Africa.

At Zambia's largest cement company, absenteeism has increased 15-fold since 1992, while over the same period Uganda's railroad company has lost 15 percent of its work force annually. AIDS accounts for 60 percent of all the employee claims for death benefits filed with Southampton Assurance, Zimbabwe's largest insurance company.

"In most instances, these figures are roughly more than 10 times what we expect to see in the developed world," said Alan Whiteside, an economist at South Africa's University of Natal.

At Eskom, South Africa's electric utility, 11 percent of the workers are infected with HIV, said company chairman Reuel Khoza. Barclay's Bank of Zambia has lost more than a quarter of its senior managers to AIDS, and a government survey of Kenyan businesses revealed that costs associated with the disease have slashed profits by almost 4 percentage points a year since 1994. Surveys in Uganda indicate that 40 percent of its military force has HIV, while classrooms in Malawi stay empty because a third of all schoolteachers are infected.

"These are people who cannot be replaced quickly or easily," Piot said. "When they die, who will teach these children?"

Here in Zimbabwe, where nearly a quarter of the 12 million residents are infected, managers at the Vitafoam mattress and furniture factory cope with employee turnover by training three new hires for every job.

"We expect to lose two of them within a year's time," said Taanda Marongwe, the plant supervisor in the industrial center of Bulawayo, about 200 miles southwest of the capital, Harare. "This way, work doesn't just grind to a halt when an employee can no longer come to work. It is a difficult way to run a factory, but it's the best way under these circumstances."

But it's in arid, hardscrabble villages such as Chegutu where AIDS has done its most damage, leaving the sick to die, and their survivors often without food on the table.

Maize production by Zimbabwe's peasant farmers and on small commercial farms declined by 61 percent last year due to illness and death from AIDS, according to a survey by the Zimbabwe Farmers Union. Cotton, vegetable, groundnut and sunflower crops were cut nearly in half, and cattle farming declined by almost a third, according to the study. Overall, agricultural output dropped by nearly 20 percent last year as a result of AIDS, said Stamps, the health minister.

Magaya, 37, had farmed his acre of land for nearly a decade before he fell ill last year. His wife earns a trickle of income by selling mud curios and shelves to their neighbors, but mostly the family relies on friends for what little food they have to eat.

"Mostly it's porridge," Magaya said. "Maybe vegetables and potatoes. Almost never any meat, though."

Business at the local nameless convenience store has declined dramatically in the past few years. "People just don't have the money to spend any more," said the owner, Phillip Mowere.

School attendance has dropped as well. Parents are hard pressed to come up with school fees, and many children are kept at home to do the chores that would ordinarily have been done by a parent, said Samson Musinanake, a project officer for a health clinic here.

Nicholas Soku, 69, would have retired years ago if not for the pestilence that has struck his family. With the help of his son, the widowed peasant farmer harvested just enough maize and cotton for his family of three to get by in years past.

But his 41-year-old son died of AIDS in June, leaving Soku to tend the crops and care for his ailing daughter, who has HIV.

"My son was unable to help me in the fields the last two years of his life, and last year, we harvested almost nothing," said Soku, rail-thin and shirtless, his face heavily creased by age and hard living.

Struggling to pitch a makeshift tent, he rose from the dust on a humid afternoon, wiped his sweaty forehead and surveyed the landscape of angular, straw-topped mud huts that rise from the ground like giant buried pencils in feverish dreams.

"I do what I can now, but I am old, and most of my time is spend looking after my daughter. We eat with the handouts and odd jobs my neighbors hire me to do. But we are scrambling to survive."

When he fell ill last year, James Urayay, 35, sold his livestock and fertilizer, and watched his three acres of land go to waste. He is, he said, an unfussy man whose only concerns are his family and in his ability to plumb cotton, tobacco and maize from the land.

"I don't have the energy to devote to either now," he said. "I am very weak."

He, his wife of 10 years and their four young children, none older than 8, struggle, living on the kindness of relatives. When he was unable to pay the electric bill earlier this year, the utility cut off his service, and his aging parents had to loan him the money to get the power restored.

"I have farmed all my life," he said while staring blankly into the fields he once worked from dawn to dusk. "It wasn't much, but it fed my children and gave us enough money to make it through the year. It pains me to see my kids and my wife eat sadza [grits] and vegetables every night for supper."

His wife, Tamary, said she has considered trying her hand in the field. "But it is not possible. All my time I spend attending to my husband and caring for my children. It is difficult to do anything else."

As she spoke, her husband sat on a wobbly plastic chair outside the family's hut, staring past the fields and toward the mountains that rumble across the sky like elephants from a child's dream.

He has lost more than 40 pounds, relatives say, and everyone fears that he does not have much more time. He mumbled, his words barely audible, seeming, almost, as if he were carrying on a conversation with himself.

"I'll miss the land," he said.