In Zimbabwe, Fewer Affairs And Less HIV

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 13, 2007

CHITUNGWIZA, Zimbabwe -- It's not only the prices of bread and eggs that are out of control in Zimbabwe, land of 4,000 percent inflation. For the man inclined to cheat on his wife, these are trying times. Keeping a mistress, visiting a prostitute or even taking a girlfriend out for beers is simply becoming too expensive, men say.

But their strain is Zimbabwe's gain in its fight against AIDS. Alone among southern African countries, Zimbabwe has shown a significant drop in its HIV rate in recent years. A major reason, researchers say, is the changing sexual habits of men forced to abandon costly multiple relationships.

"Those extramarital relationships, they're getting tough to sustain," said Thomas Muza, 37, who is struggling to support his wife and a mistress on the shrinking value of a math teacher's paycheck. Worth $50 a month at the beginning of June, it's now worth $17 and falling almost every day.

AIDS activists and some researchers long blamed the continent's high poverty rates for its unusually widespread HIV epidemics, arguing that poor medical care and hunger made Africans especially vulnerable to the virus, while financial need accelerated its spread by pushing women into prostitution.

Yet Zimbabwe's experience shows that the connection between AIDS and economics is not nearly so straightforward. The country has made strides against HIV during eight years of steep recession. Wealthier neighbors such as South Africa and Botswana, meanwhile, have struggled to curb new infections despite much higher levels of development and massive spending on the disease.

Many researchers now suspect that economic vitality -- expressed in rising truck traffic, burgeoning bar scenes and widening income disparity -- encourage the behaviors that fuel a sexually transmitted epidemic. But as men get poorer, they pare back their relationships, making them less likely to contract or spread HIV.

AIDS remains severe here, with an estimated one in five Zimbabwean adults infected with the virus that causes the disease, but surveys show that the number of new infections has fallen. Men report fewer girlfriends, fewer visits to prostitutes and less casual sex -- all indicators that in other countries have accompanied a retreating epidemic.

Nightclubs, cinemas and brothels have closed in Harare, the capital, and in some cases evangelical churches have taken over the buildings. Less visibly, men say they are abandoning what Zimbabweans call "small houses," a legacy of the polygamous marriages once common here.

In these relationships, married men pay rent and other living expenses for a second or even third regular sex partner. As in marriages, condoms rarely are used, creating webs of unprotected sex easily infiltrated by HIV if the man or any of the women become infected.

"Having a lot of girlfriends or having 'small houses,' you've got to have a degree of disposable income," said Godfrey Woelk, an epidemiologist at the University of Zimbabwe. "Being poor and being in love does not really work, no matter what the romantics say."

Muza, who has a long face and a thin beard, was not poor when he started teaching. He was part of Zimbabwe's broad middle class that also included the bureaucrats, engineers and factory managers whom the country's schools, once the best in Africa, turned out by the tens of thousands.

Now these same men find their paychecks tripling or quadrupling some months. But prices are rising so much faster that many are slipping below the poverty line. Some joke bitterly that with a roll of toilet paper costing about 30,000 Zimbabwean dollars, it would be cheaper to stack 100-dollar bills in their bathrooms.

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