Note: This article was written on November 22, 1988 in Lusaka in Zambia
Has AIDS changed social life in Zambia? AIDS is a terrible, incurable, fatal disease that renders the body’s immune system vulnerable to disease. It can be contracted through blood transfusion, exchange of body fluids with an infected person, and through sexual intercourse with an infected person. Because sex is a likely source of infection, have men and women changed their relations in public social places like bars, parties, discos etc.?
Two experiences recently suggested to me that Zambians may be changing their social behavior towards the opposite sex in public places. One incident was at a popular night spot in Lusaka and another in Munyumbwe in the Gwembe Valley in the Southern Province of Zambia.
Late on a Friday night in my local club in Lusaka, a long time friend talked me into visiting one of the local night spots. I had not been to one of these places since the 1970s in my hey days of youth. I am not a fontini (square) but I have read, heard, and seen enough about AIDS to realize the seriousness of the disease. I did not know how much of this information I had internalized until we entered the night spot.
After paying our dues at the gate, my friend and I stood near the door to survey the situation. The rhumba music was blasting and good. There were red, blue, and white fluorescent lights flashing everywhere. The cold one was really cold and plentiful. Men and women seemed to spend a great deal of time milling around and not dancing close to each other in pairs. I saw a couple dancing and another totally strange man cut in and dance with the lady. I expected ugly faces, violent gestures, blows, and blood. But the men simply smiled at each other as the other man went his own way with a look of vast relief on his face.
I could not understand what was going on. Ten to fifteen years ago, men and women went to these night events glued together in twos like Siamese twins. You often got the man’s wrath if he so much as went to the toilet for five seconds and zoomed back to find you talking or dancing to his girl or prospect.
Since we had walked in, two women had been dancing on their own as partners. One of them walked over and tapped me on the shoulder.
“Finshi muletina tuyeni tushane!” She said. (Let’s dance. What are you afraid of?)
Did I have fear written all over my face? How did she guess? This made me even more apprehensive. Bells began to ring in my head. Was she a carrier trying to lure me into death? I nervously shuffled my feet to the nice rhumba song and clearly she could see my mind was not in the song or in her. When the long rhumba song finally ended, I mumbled a thank you. I heard the woman remark to her friend:
“AIDS nayichinja mano ya abaume.” She said. (AIDS has changed the thinking of men.)
A few days later, my employers sent me and another company colleague to Munyumbwe in the remote Gwembe Valley in the Southern Province for work. Munyumbwe Sub-center is located 45 kilometers from Chisekesi through difficult hilly terrain in the valley escarpment in Southern Province. There are steep rocky slopes. Most of the cars that limp along and fumigate our city roads with thick black smoke would not make it in this terrain.
During the few days we were in Munyumbwe, we had memorable experiences. You cannot experience and appreciate the geographical and cultural diversity of Zambia unless you travel. The people were nice and friendly. For a long time, I had never seen so many twinkling bright stars in the dark night sky. The usually scarce drink had just arrived at the only local bar. After work, my colleague and I decided to go there and relax.
We were jovially talking with some of our newly made men and women friends and acquaintances when it happened. An obviously good looking woman wearing a dark blue dress joined us. She was well groomed. The woman walked to our group greeted and joined us. As it often happens, the conversation somehow drifted to social life and AIDS. The woman in the dark blue dress took over the conversation with a smile, radiating voice, and her eyes twinkling with warm remembrances of better times.
“There was a time,” she said. “When a friend of mine and I used to cause havoc at this bar. At 16.00 hours my friend and I would bath, do our hair, put on attractive dresses and latest shoes. We would put on just a dash of sweet perfume. Then we would saunter into this bar. At the sight of us, men would drool, freeze in mid air with bottles of drink in their mouths, and some men would break their necks trying to look and follow us around with their hungry eyes.”
We all roared with hearty laughter.
“What about now?” one man asked.
“Now it is dangerous,” she said slowly shaking her head. “With AIDS life is different. Now if a man proposes you at the bar, you have to think a hundred times. Is he really worth dying for? Do you love him enough to die? Often the answer is no.”
We offered the woman a drink. She refused. She said she had come on her own for two only and that was enough. She had work to do the following day. She bid us good bye and walked away into the night in the direction of the village. Not one man among many of us offered to walk her home. Although AIDS is such a deadly and devastating disease, experiences like these make one optimistic that people in Zambia will change their attitudes, social practices, and survive the disease.