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In Postwar Era, Angolans Now Face Threat Of HIV-AIDS

"They say it's not nice to do it with a condom," he said.

Studies show that Angolans start having sex at a younger age and have more partners than others in southern Africa. The average age for a girl's first sexual encounter is 14. And these young teens are prized by older men who exchange sex for cell phones, blue jeans or, in rural areas, such basics as seeds or a ride to the market.

Maria Lonor Manuel, 17, holds a condom during a drama at a home for boys in Huambo to educate Angolans about the dangers of HIV and AIDS. (Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)

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"HIV here is probably going to explode because of this informal exchange sex," said Melanie Luick, an AIDS expert with the UNICEF office in Luanda.

As the infection rate lags behind the region, so does the medical response and the public understanding of AIDS.

Most of the public health system was destroyed during the war, leaving an acute shortage of hospital beds and medication, especially of the antiretroviral drugs key to treating AIDS. There are only 12 HIV testing and counseling centers in Angola. And compared to other southern African nations, Angola has few billboards or public education campaigns devoted to preventing spread of the disease.

The messages, by contrast, are explicit at Okulissanga, which has weekly HIV education classes that are open to the general public in Huambo.

At one recent class, a drama group comprised mostly of boys from the program performed a skit about HIV. A 17-year-old girl tore open a wrapper, pulled out the condom inside, then rolled it onto a model of a penis held at the midsection of a teenaged boy.

"If you want to live," the group said in unison, "use a condom."

But six boys interviewed after the class all shook their heads vigorously when asked whether they knew of anybody with HIV or AIDS. They agreed that most sexually active boys they knew did not use condoms regularly. And several said that girls resent it when boys suggest they do, especially within a steady relationship, because of the stigma associated with AIDS.

"I try and I insist, and if she still says 'No' . . . ," said Ezequiel Chilena, 17, his voice trailing off as he lowered his eyes. "And maybe the next time I'll try to convince her again."

Another boy, Martinho de Lima, 16, has been at Okulissanga for three years. But when he had his first sexual encounter in January, de Lima said, he had not yet attended an HIV awareness class. The couple did not use a condom.

"We didn't know," he said.

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