The playing field that borders the slums of Bauleni is wide enough for all the concerns that have brought several hundred people here on a bright warm Sunday. Soccer goal nets frame the center where teams of teenaged girls and boys play--each goal by a girl counting double, so the boys share the ball. At the foot of the field, a canopy shades a soundstage where younger children compete in a dance contest. And against the long edge of the field, a line of tents like a triage site bordering a battleground, where players, their friends and their proud parents or guardians can get tested for the virus that leads to AIDS.
These are the realities of youth in Bauleni, a township of cramped dilapidated dwellings in shouting distance one of Lusaka’s more affluent suburbs. Football, as they call soccer here, is a passion. Music and dance alleviate the hardships of lives that enjoy few other luxuries. And HIV stalks children and teenagers who, in a township where the numbers of new infections are among the highest in the capital, have little refuge from its reach.
The impetus to bring these realities together came from Grassroot Soccer, an international New Hampshire-based nonprofit organization, that, with funding from the Elton John Foundation, and help from local partners, began last year to arrange “VCT Tournaments.” In the alphabet soup that makes up the global AIDS response, VCT stands for voluntary counseling and testing for HIV. You come, you play, you learn, you find out if you have an incurable disease. For at least a dozen of those who test, that means it’s the beginning of a new life of clinic referrals and appointments, of more testing--for viral load, for immune cell count--of illness and often secrecy, and eventually of a lifelong regimen of medicine.
How do you tell someone all this amid the cheers of a weekend outing?
“First, you tell them their life isn’t over, they don’t have to die, there is help,” says Andrew Makabishi a Grassroot Soccer counselor.
During the week he works with children in an afterschool program, using sports analogies to illustrate the dangers of the invisible virus. In one, he says, the children dribble a ball through an obstacle course of cones each labeled with risky acts: “Multiple Sex Partners” “Sex and gift” “Older partner” “Alcohol and Drug Use.”
Moomba Mbolongwe, social worker and coordinator for Grassroot Soccer events says the great number of bars around Bauleni is probably one of the reasons for the high rates of HIV here.
“The last time I was here as a counselor, I had an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old test positive,” she says.
The 11-year-old came with her grandmother, to whom Mbolongwe broke the news. The grandmother was not surprised.
“The child was out drinking with older kids. She thought she was having sex,” Mbolongwe explains.
Why was an 11-year-old out drinking and having sex?
“Peer pressure,” Mbolongwe says.
“Peer pressure,” which in more affluent circles might conjure images of teenagers wearing trendy clothes while acting up at the local mall because home doesn’t offer all the thrills that youth demands, means something else here.
Here, home is a roughly 12-foot square cinder block box, with no electricity or water, often with missing parts--a roof, a door, a wall. It is shared by half a dozen people or more. Rent, at about $40, a month is outside the reach of anyone who would live here.
“Most people, if they have jobs, they work as maids or gardeners,” Mbolongwe says.
Most of the people in Bauleni work in Woodlands, a suburb popular with the expatriate aid-worker community, or Ibex, home to the towering new American embassy. These maids and gardeners earn about $100 a month. Those without jobs sell vegetables, peanuts, “talk-time” for cell phones, or other odds and ends by the roadside.
There aren’t enough jobs for everyone here, so some of the people living in these cramped hovels have nothing to do. There are, Mbolongwe explains, no safe spaces for children here.
So they come out in the light of a summer day, and play--and find out if the virus has caught them yet, and how to run faster and get nimble enough to escape it.