Harvesting a crop of sorrow

Harvesting a crop of sorrow

Robert F. Black

In the southwest Ugandan town of Kyotera, the AIDS virus is gradually destroying a coffee factory that is one of the area’s largest employers. The owner succumbed to the disease in 1990, and the company’s 36 employees know that his widow, too, will soon die. The proprietor’s children cannot help; they are too young to take over. Moreover, AIDS killed two of the staff this year and, several months later, the company is still unable to find skilled workers to replace them. Those left behind frequently take time off from work to attend funerals. Laments 28-year-old accountant William Yiga, “We cannot complete a month without four or five members of staff losing a relative.”

In what is probably the world’s most AIDS-riddled nation, even day-to-day business has been affected by the endless deathblows of the disease. After 14 years of military regimes and civil war that by 1985 had claimed almost 1 million lives, Uganda is now waging a fierce struggle against AIDS. Up to 1.5 million people out of 18 million are infected with HIV, 8.3 percent of the total population. Among the sexually active, 19 percent carry the AIDS virus. By the year 2010, some 4 million people will be HIV positive and an estimated 870,000 will be dying of AIDS. Experts compare this scourge to the sleeping sickness epidemic that wiped out half of Uganda’s population at the beginning of the century.

Weak coffee. The hollowing out of Uganda’s work force will drag down the country’s crucial agricultural sector, now employing 86 percent of the labor force. Coffee, which made up 88 percent of all exports in 1990, worth $184 million, is particularly at risk. Uganda’s robusta coffee bean – considered one of the world’s best – has been shrinking as decades of neglect from economic chaos are exacerbated by the epidemic. Many Ugandans now prefer to grow the staple matooke banana because it requires little care. In Uganda’s southern district of Rakai, which grows much of the nation’s coffee, entire families have been wiped out by the epidemic. Their mud-and-wattle houses sit crudely boarded up while the surrounding small farms fall prey to weeds, the coffee bushes left to grow wild. At a local coffee operation, Director John Bazoonona says production has not yet been affected by AIDS, but he knows that before long, the disease will catch up to his business. “It’s skilled people who are denying,” notes Bazoonona, “those who know how to run businesses.”

Like many of the nation’s business leaders and workers, Bazoonona is encumbered by a growing number of orphans. Three of his offspring have died of AIDS, leaving behind 10 children. Nationwide, Uganda will have an estimated 1 million to 2.8 million orphans in the next two decades. “Running an orphanage of 150 is a big deal,” warns Jill Armstrong of the World Bank. “In Uganda, the sheer numbers will be overwhelming.”

The Ugandan government in Kampala has not surrendered to the onslaught yet. Unlike many African leaders who have hidden their heads in the sand when confronted by AIDS, the government of President Yoweri Museveni is credited with one of the most enlightened AIDS policies in Africa. Funds from such international donors as USAID and the World Health Organization are channeled to many public and private organizations to provide AIDS education, home health care, HIV testing and counseling. But Despite success in wiping away the stigma of AIDS and building up widespread awareness of its causes, aid workers worry that they have seen no significant behavioral changes – at least not for the better. Older men, fearful of catching HIV, have reportedly begun seeking out sex with more virginal teenagers. Some of these men are unwitting carriers of the virus, however, and instead of protecting themselves, they are merely passing the disease on to the next generation.

COPYRIGHT 1992 All rights reserved.

COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group