Aids in Zimbabwe: the story no one wants to hear


I could not hold my excitement when the Federal Express man handed me the white envelop. I opened it nervously. It contained two copies of a two-page agreement that I had to countersign to enter into an agreement to produce a 90-minute documentary with one of the United States’ top African-American filmmakers, St Clair Bourne.

We had never met. And we haven’t met up to now. All our discussions have been over the internet. Yet Bourne had agreed to look for funds for the documentary. I had been a journalist for nearly 30 years but I had zero experience in television. This was a dream come true. It was going to be my turning point. And what a good kick-off! I was going to break into new ground with someone with more than 40 films and documentaries- some of which had won international awards- behind him.

But 16 months down the line, we still haven’t done the documentary. We haven’t found the funding yet. But we haven’t given up either. As a print journalist used to quick results, I have been wavering. At one point last year, I almost called it quits. Things had become just too tough for me. The small jobs that I had been doing to keep myself going had dried up.

When I look back, I sometimes think, perhaps the start was too easy. Too good to be true, I am tempted to admit. I had been thinking of making documentaries for some time and had been hunting for discussion lists to see the kind of talk writers, producers and directors had. I joined one called webcinema. Though it was administered in Australia it seemed to have a worldwide audience.

My post was very simple. “I am a Zimbabwean journalist,” it said. “I have been working for the print media for nearly 30 years. But I am now feeling that there is something I need to do in documentary form. I do not have the skills or equipment. But I have ideas as well as contacts to do research. I do not know whether this is the appropriate forum to raise this issue.”

“One of the documentaries I want to focus on, for example, is about the deadly disease Aids,” the message went on. “According to UNAIDS, Zimbabwe currently ranks number two in the world in terms of Aids prevalence. I am interested in doing a documentary that will be broadcast locally and worldwide looking at Aids not just as a killer but a money spinner for some people.”

I went on to detail six issues that I wanted to look at for the documentary and posted the message on October 20, 2002. It was a gamble. But I had nothing to lose. A day later, I got several responses but the one that caught my attention was from someone who had a funny signature and a funny name- St Clair Bourne, whose signature was Nebour.

“I read your letter about a proposed documentary (Aids in Zimbabwe),” Nebour wrote. “With a bit more information, I’d like to try and raise funds in the US (possibly through a broadcaster) for such a documentary. I am sending you background material. Let me know if you are interested and we will begin legally structuring a letter of agreement between us. Then we can start structuring an film treatment. (What you have written is a good start.).”

I was stunned by Bourne’s background. It was just too good. I did an internet search and it confirmed his credentials. I was to be the writer and co-producer. What an honour!

I signed the agreement and mailed a copy to Bourne by airmail instead of Federal Express because it was too expensive for me. I told him so by e-mail. He had no problem with that. He wanted me to start working on the treatment. That was jargon to me. He mailed me three samples to study and then come up with my own.

I came up with a 2 500-word treatment. It took me three weeks, working over Christmas and I mailed it to Bourne on 27 December 2002. And the long wait that has now lasted 16 months began. The Iraq war, which diverted media attention, was a major set back. Then came the excuses. The latest is that the Aids story has been told a thousand times.

True, thousands of Aids stories have been told. But we know that the story that we want to tell has not been told. And it may never be told because, basically, our story seeks to expose how big business, non-governmental organisations and even people living with Aids are cashing in on the dreaded disease.

As a Zimbabwean, at times I get the feeling that, the name Zimbabwe, is not helping our case either. The country has just become taboo. Yet, the story we want to tell is not about Zimbabwe but about Aids. And what is happening in Zimbabwe is also happening everywhere in Africa – in Zambia, in Botswana and even in South Africa, which to all intents and purposes is a developed country. It is a story no one wants to hear because it is not good for business, especially big business.

The story that we want to tell is that despite the advances made in fighting HIV/Aids and the millions being poured by the United States government through the Agency for International Development (USAID) and through Population Services International (PSI), thousands of Zimbabweans are still dying every week. The latest figure is 3 000 a week. USAID itself has admitted that though 98 percent of the Zimbabwean population is aware of Aids, they have not changed their behaviour.

One is bound to ask, why? We believe and want to prove that it is probably because the awareness campaign is not relevant to the average Zimbabwean. The campaign uses personalities that the average Zimbabwean does not relate to. Destiny’s Child and Shaggy are not role models most Zimbabweans identify with. Instead, it probably perpetuates the notion that the disease is for the rich and famous and those who have money to travel abroad.

We would also like to look at the aspect of denial. Though 3 000 people are reported to be dying of Aids related illnesses every week, no one publicly admits this. Even the educated and enlightened members of the community still blame the death on something else including witchcraft.

Politics also comes into play. Despite having the second highest prevalence rate, Zimbabwe is not among the countries that will benefit from the United States’ $15 billion Aids programme. The only reason is that it is not in good books with Washington.

Zimbabwe’s neighbour, Botswana, which has the world’s highest prevalence rate will receive aid. But in terms of figures, the number of people that are HIV positive in Zimbabwe is greater than the entire population of Botswana. The US government is prepared to turn a blind eye on more than 2 million HIV people just because it does not recognise Robert Mugabe and his government.

The story we want to tell is about how organisations like USAID and PSI are ploughing back money for the HIV/AIDS programmes to their own countries. Not only are they hiring artists such as Destiny’s Child and Shaggy to promote the use of condoms, but they are also importing the condoms from the United Kingdom yet a local manufacturer at one time made the condoms and has the capacity to do so.

Advocacy programmes have been subcontracted to US non-governmental organisations that have in turn hired locals. And to show their insensitivity one of the organisations has named an award after one of the first people to “come out” but she squandered millions meant for her colleagues.

There also seems to be greater emphasis on the use of condoms which are bought from donor countries as opposed to abstention, which is free.

There is also the battle over anti-retrovirals. The American pharmaceutical sector, which is the second largest industry in the US economy after the military-industrial-information complex, has began facing heavy competition from cheap makers of anti-retroviral from developing countries like India. Bush’s AIDS Relief Plan could see US drug manufacturers re-establishing their dominance in the African market.

But this will be at a price which most poor people cannot afford. Cheap remedies that have been developed locally are quickly brushed off though scientific tests have proved their efficacy.

But it is not only international organisations and drug companies that are making money. Locals too, are. Funeral parlours are sprouting all over the country. Handling of bodies, especially of people one did not know was taboo in the traditional African society, but death is now a booming business.

It benefits the whole supply chain from gravediggers, flower vendors, coffin makers, nursing homes, insurance companies, burial societies and funeral parlours. One funeral parlor is currently seeking a listing on the stock exchange. It already has more than 20 branches countrywide.

Local non-governmental organisations have now also jumped onto the bandwagon. There are now so many organisations involved in Aids that the government in November last year tightened regulations on the registration of Aids service organisations.

The government introduced an Aids levy in 2000 through which each worker contributes 3 percent of his or her salary to the levy. The fund now runs into billions and some of the NGOs are cashing in on this fund.

The government has every reason to be worried. An audit carried out in 2001 revealed massive looting of funds by people living with Aids whose umbrella organisation is called ZNNP+. Millions of dollars were siphoned from the fund and given to relatives some of whom were not HIV positive.

The organisation could not account for $96 million ( about US$1.75) which was a lot of money at the time considering that the minimum wage was less than $2 500 a month (US$45). The director of the organisation alone looted $48 million before fleeing to the United States. He has not been heard of since. He probably lied his way into the US claiming that he was being hounded by the Mugabe administration yet he had stolen money contributed by workers to benefit poor Aids sufferers. There are now even doubts that the man was HIV positive.

These are some of the things our documentary seeks to expose, namely that since there is plenty of money lying around, some of the people that have allegedly “come out” are in it for the money.

Another worrying aspect is the affluent lives the heads of NGOs involved in Aids are living. Most of them drive SUVs, competing one on one with company CEOs.

Someone living with Aids who felt that her colleagues were being short-changed tipped me about this rot in some NGOs. She had just attended an annual general meeting of an organisation that specialised in counselling.

To her utter surprise, the organisation, which had a budget for $1.3 million ( I have the document) had spent only $13 000 on counselling. Salaries for the 11-member staff were about $700 000. The organisation even bought lunch for its staff from an expensive take-away restaurant. The director had squandered $65 000 on a trip to Japan. The woman said this was the pattern in most organisations.

This is the story we want to tell. We believe no one has told it before. We know that the African story is hard to sell. But we believe the world deserves to know.

Mo Amin, one of Africa’s best-known filmmakers, lamented about this skewed view of Africa almost two decades ago. He had initially failed to sell the story about famine in Ethiopia. But when the British Broadcasting Corporation finally screened it, European and American networks that had turned it down, scrambled for it.

The documentary culminated in one of the biggest humanitarian aid programmes ever, with Bob Geldof spearheading the campaign in the United Kingdom and Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie kicking off the American campaign.

Speaking at a function organised by the Journalist Alumni Association of the University of Southern California to honour him with the Theodore E. Kruglak Special Award, Amin said the response to Ethiopia’s famine story had proved beyond doubt to television organisations that they underestimated the amount of public interest there was in the Third World.

“You may find it hard to believe, but when the first report about the famine in Mekele was offered to Europe’s broadcasters they turned it down… I understand the story was pretty much the same here.. But when viewers saw (it), they proved beyond all question they were not as small-minded as some of the people who run the media…..”

We believe this is the case with our proposed documentary. Bourne and I are worlds apart, but we agreed instantly that there was a big story to tell. A 90-minute documentary is no joke. Mo Amin’s story that changed the world’s view on famine in Ethiopia was just over 5 minutes.


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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.


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