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Fighting AIDS, Hitchhiking with Truck Drivers

Princess Kasune Zulu with Belinda Collins | Author | Monday, May 3, 2010

Fighting AIDS, Hitchhiking with Truck Drivers

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from Warrior Princess: Fighting for Life with Hope and Courage by Princess Kasune Zulu with Belinda Collins (IVP).

Zulu's parents were among the first victims of the mysterious illness that killed thousands in Zambia - that disease came to be known as AIDS. Zulu contracted the virus sometime in her teens, learning her status when she was only twenty-one. After her diagnosis, she began seeking ways to help children orphaned by AIDS like herself. After opening a school for the children, however, she saw the disease rage on, propagated by unwitting truck drivers, poor sex workers, and the public's lack of knowledge. Willing to try anything if it could slow the spread of HIV, Zulu decided on a risky course of action.

While the school was supporting local orphans, it was not stopping the spread of the virus. I still needed to find a way to help keep people from becoming infected. Children growing up with two living parents was a much better option than educating orphans. It seemed more helpful to put a fence at the top of the cliff to protect children from falling than have an ambulance at the bottom waiting to catch them. I realized that, if I was to succeed, I needed to get the message through to our men.

There were a number of reasons for this. I now knew that biologically and otherwise, women are more susceptible to the virus. Physiologically, it is easier for the virus to transfer from a man to a woman than from a woman to a man. To exacerbate this, inequality, poverty, lack of education, lesser physical strength and cultural practices combine to place women in a vulnerable position. Condoms are widely available now, but around the time of this story, they were not. While their availability was a challenge, women's powerlessness to insist on their usage was as great a challenge.

I am not trying to portray women as completely innocent. But statistics do show that in Zambia, men are more likely than women to have multiple partners. Sometimes this is due to polygamous marriages considered legitimate by our custom. Sixteen percent of all Zambian women live in polygamous marriages. In other cases it's due to the fragility of our economy and the fact that men are forced to spend long periods away from home working. Indeed, it is now known that the key groups of men who travel for work—drivers, soldiers, traders and miners—have played a key role in the spread of the virus in southern Africa. With inadequate transport systems and no great need to travel, most of the rest of the population remains in one place for much of the time, unaware a deadly virus may soon come knocking on their door.

During my hospital visits, which had by this time become few and far between due to the commitments of Fountain of Life, I had heard the same story over and over. Women lay dying with stories of husbands returning home just a few times a year, in many cases bringing the most unwanted traveler, the killer virus, with them. Tragically, in too many cases it does not take long before the virus spreads not only to the wife but also to any future children.

So one day as I sat down after Fountain of Life activities, I found myself wondering, and not for the first time, How can I reach them? How can I change the behavior of men? There must be a way. I pondered the problems of my country, the circumstances that lead to promiscuity and whether there were any clear occupations to target in my landlocked country. The image of Africa as a woman, with cars and trucks spreading cells of the virus through her body, had returned to me, and I knew this had to be part of the solution. As I thought about the number of times I had been propositioned hitchhiking, bingo! An idea came to mind.

I ran to my friend Chilufya's home, desperate to share my idea with her. "Chilufya, I've got it, I have an idea. I need you in on this with me. Truck drivers are a part of this problem, and I know how we can reach them." Chilufya looked intrigued and was trying to anticipate what I would say next. "We can pretend to be commercial sex workers, hitchhike with the drivers and then educate them about the virus once we're on our way." Chilufya's face fell. She was used to my wild ideas, but this seemed to be too much for my friend.

"Chilufya, think about it. We live in a landlocked country. All goods for import and export must travel by road. With no computer systems, drivers are forced to stay at the border for days. It's here they cause the most trouble, but if they can, they will pick up a girl along the way to take to the next border town with them."

"Princess, I know this is true, but what does it have to do with us?"

"I need company just in case someone we know catches us and wonders what we are up to." I knew I would have a hard time trying to convince a friend of Moffat's or someone from our church that I was only pretending to be a commercial sex worker. "Besides, Chilufya, it will be safer if there are two of us."

Chilufya's reaction wasn't what I'd hoped for. "Princess, you are a married woman—we are married women—and Christians, for that matter. How can we do such a thing? What will people think of us? You are right; they will conclude that we are being promiscuous. I think you should forget about this idea. It will only put us in trouble if our husbands find out. Please, let's forget about this thing and leave it alone."

"But Chilufya"—by now I was pleading—"there are people dying of AIDS every day. As Christians we are called to respond with compassion and yet we aren't. Shouldn't we care more about those people who are infected and dying than those people who might judge us?"

My daily struggle was that as Christians we care about judgment and people not getting to heaven; true, we need to care about people's souls and eternal life. But we should also care about their lives while they're on earth and work to protect people now. Whatever I said, though, I just couldn't talk Chilufya into my plan, so I left her alone.

On the way home from Chilufya's house, disappointed and lonely, I pondered our discussion. Putting myself in her situation, I could see that Chilufya was right. She had reason to fear as this could jeopardize her marriage. 

I tried to let it go—for the sake of my own marriage as well as to be at peace. While Moffat found solace in his faith and in his daughters, his mood was growing darker as he became increasingly bitter over his HIV status and jealous and suspicious of me, wanting to know where I was at all times. Moffat was not a violent man by nature, but as his temper grew more volatile, I often wondered what he was capable of.

The idea wouldn't leave me. Educating the trucker drivers had grown into a need, a burden that had to be met. I had to find the strength and courage to go this alone.

The morning of my first planned hitchhiking mission I behaved like a perfect wife so Moffat would not suspect a thing. I had waited for the school holidays so I had no responsibilities for Fountain of Life. After I woke, showered and dressed in my African clothes, I prepared a hot breakfast of sweet potato and ground-nut sauce for my husband and then waved goodbye as he set off for work. Leaving the children with some of our extended family, I gave them instructions on what to prepare for dinner, so it would appear I had been home all day. I now had eight clear hours ahead of me.

When I was sure the coast was clear, I left the house carrying a plastic bag full of the items that would become my secret weapon in the fight against AIDS and headed for the gate that welcomes you to Luanshya. Looking to make sure no one was watching, I then jumped into the bushes by the side of the road. A few minutes later I looked like someone else altogether in tight jeans, a short blue silk shaba tank top that showed my belly, high heels and red lipstick. The transformation was empowering but also a little frightening. I'm not sure if it's something I should be proud of, but I passed easily as a commercial sex worker!

I stood still for a few moments, hidden from view, wondering whether I really had the courage to proceed. But I thought about how many girls would be saved if just one trucker changed his behavior—and, if it wasn't too late, how his wife and children would be saved too. What if I could change two drivers, or ten, or a hundred? Those feelings of intense hope helped me forget the risks. My fears forgotten, I was no longer scared. This was something beyond my own doing. There was a greater power driving me on. Let the mission begin, I thought.

Drivers didn't seem able to resist my voluptuous African figure and curves. Their big rigs would be charging down the road, and then I would hear the sound of those giant big brakes kicking in. I would climb up into the cabin and away we went. Each time I got a lift, the conversation went something like this:

"Hey, my dear. Where you going?" the driver would say.

"I'm going to the next town," I would respond.

"Well how 'bout that? I'm going to the next town too. Jump in. I will give you a ride. What's your name, sweet girl?"

For some reason I always used Doreen as an alias, or occasionally Doris; who can say why?

"Well, Doreen, why don't you come along with me to the border post? We can have more time together there."

"Sure, I'm not in a hurry. Let's go for a ride."

It never took long for the driver to get suggestive in that way, which was my cue to switch gears.

"Sir, I have to tell you, I'm on a mission. I am sorry I actually cannot take you up on your offer."

"What are you talking about?" the driver would ask indignantly.

"I just got into your truck to tell you about a disease called AIDS."

If he had heard of AIDS, the driver would respond with something like, "Do I look promiscuous to you? That disease doesn't concern me. It is for people who are promiscuous and who sleep with prostitutes."

I would choose my words carefully. These men were usually older than me, and our culture insists we show respect. I also knew that the wrong approach would shut down a driver's willingness to listen. "Please, sir. Even the girls you pick up on the street—they may look healthy but they still can be infected with the disease. No one is immune or bulletproof to this disease, sir." Once I had their attention I would continue. "If a girl is HIV-positive and you have unprotected sex, the chances of you becoming infected are high."

"Who do you know who has this virus?" the drivers would often ask.

At this point, I would quickly reach into my bag of tricks and pull out my own HIV results. "I do, sir. Could you have guessed if I didn't tell you?"

One driver, I remember, nearly caused an accident. He was changing gears and the shock was too much.

"But you look so healthy. I can't believe it."

"That is the secret weapon of this virus, sir. You can never tell who has it. Please, do be careful at all times. Of course, girls won't tell you if they are HIV-positive. They need the money. Many may not even be aware they are infected. But this will not stop the virus from spreading to you and it will not stop you taking it home to your wife and even your unborn children. Please," I pleaded, "I ask you to try and be faithful, and if you can't, please always wear a condom."

I knew even the hardest of men would hate the knowledge that they could pass the virus to their children, so this seemed like a diplomatic avenue to pursue. "Not only do I have the virus myself, it took both my parents while I was still a teenager. Do you know how vulnerable that makes a child? Do you want this for your own children?"

Responses from drivers varied. Some still believed they were at no risk from the virus. Their excuses and justification for their behavior flowed thick and fast. Sadly, some of my favorites were, "The girls at the border just force us. They disturb us by knocking on our truck doors while we are sleeping. We're only giving them what they want—we help each other out." And, "They dress so seductively; they encourage us. What can a man do? Sometimes I am away from my wife for several months. Am I not a man?"

But other drivers took this as a time for reflection. They thanked me for sharing my lesson with them. I knew their behavior would change, at least for that day. Human beings, we can be such creatures of habit; I just prayed the drivers' old habits didn't return.

Depending on the driver and their responsiveness to our conversation, I would also introduce them to my faith and encourage them to develop a closer relationship with God. When this part of our conversation was well received I was truly happy, as I had the chance to protect life on earth as well as share about everlasting life.

Some days the drivers would drop me in Ndola and other days I'd ask them to take me to the nearby mine town of Kitwe, where my Aunt Erika happened to live. Once or twice, when Moffat was away for work, I asked drivers to take me all the way to the border. The first time I reached the border of Congo, the area called Kasumbalesa, I could not believe my eyes.

The reality of young girls and women living through desperate times means there's always a gathering of commercial sex workers waiting for weary drivers at African border towns. Sadly, many are just young girls, often orphans themselves, trying to put food on their tables or make some money to pay for their education fees, uniforms and shoes. As I looked in the eyes of these girls I saw that they carry deep shame from their actions, but necessity forces them to play a hand they would rather not. As someone who has been in a vulnerable position, I know how this feels. The girls have a tragic saying that conveys their reality and shows how inextricably AIDS is linked to poverty: "AIDS may kill me in months or years, but hunger will kill me and my family tomorrow." This is what extreme poverty does to people; it robs them of the ability to think long-term. I knew desperation would see these girls return again and again, regardless of what I said, unless the drivers were willing to change their behavior.

Such girls are known as commercial sex workers, but I struggle with that title. Many of them are just teenagers, and will charge as little as fifty thousand kwacha or ten dollars per "turn" with a driver. That fee is likely to be halved or dropped as low as one dollar if the girl wants to use a condom to protect both herself and the driver from an incurable, deadly disease. What is commercial about this transaction? one may ask.

The implications of this behavior are staggering. On noticing a rise in the number of commercial sex workers contracting AIDS as far back as the late 1980s, a researcher named Job Bwayo at the University of Nairobi decided to test some women. Groups of prostitutes he screened tested as high as 80 percent for HIV. Then, curious about their clients, he began to test truck drivers in 1989, again with frightening results: 36 percent of the Ugandan drivers were positive, 19 percent of the Kenyans and 51 percent of the Rwandans. Today long-haul truckers have an HIV-infection rate that is roughly twice that of the general population.

Fighting AIDS among commercial sex workers is an example of how the response can be hampered by politics and ideology. The challenge is that buying sex is illegal and considered immoral, yet in countries the world over, it continues to happen. But knowing it happens, conservative policy-makers and humanitarian agencies won't fund AIDS prevention programs for these girls. They deem any strategy targeting commercial sex workers as an endorsement of their work. The result is that many initiatives designed to help these young women find a new income—say sewing clothes or making crafts—never gets funding, trapping the girls in their horrible existence. What sense does that make, either from a disease-control perspective or a moral standpoint? Didn't Jesus work among the prostitutes? Didn't he bless them and allow them to wash his feet? What gives us the right to sit in judgment of the people Jesus blessed?

An inspiring African female leader, Graca Machel, wife of the great Nelson Mandela, whom I was blessed to meet at a conference in Thailand when she chaired a panel on which I spoke, was interviewed by an international journalist named Stephanie Nolen for her book 28: Stories of AIDS in Africa. It is an extraordinary book that I implore you to read. Mrs. Machel was interviewed around the death of Nelson Mandela's son Makgatho Mandela from AIDS, the virus that killed Mrs. Machel's own brother-in-law Boaventura Machel six years earlier. Mrs. Machel's interview is compelling, but one quote in particular captured my attention and helps explain the difficulties around tackling AIDS amidst commercial sex workers. She says tackling AIDS "brings up the ugliest part of us as human beings." The fact that AIDS is, in many cases, transmitted sexually, "warps the response that might have been made had HIV been spread by mosquitoes or sneezing rather than sex." With my own eyes I have seen this to be true. When we decide HIV is too difficult and confrontational to discuss, we allow its deadly march to continue.

The more I rode with the drivers the more necessary it seemed to continue. Every day I was alarmed by some new behavior or attitude I uncovered. To me it was a matter of life and death. Every day I believed that if I changed the behavior of one driver, one life might be saved—one girl or mother. That seemed to me what making a difference was all about.

On a good day I worked as hard as I could to get in three trips before hurrying back to change in the bushes so I could beat Moffat home from work. I always made sure I had a story up my sleeve in case I mistimed my journey. My undercover activities created inner turmoil for me. I knew it was un-Christian to lie to my husband; I risked harming my marriage and losing my daughters, in addition to risking my reputation as a Christian. Yet my conscience told me walking away would also be the wrong thing to do.

Every single minute of every single day one child dies from AIDS-related illnesses, and one more is infected. This virus had killed my parents and my sister, and in the years to come it would also claim my brother Kelvin. I was surrounded by orphans who had lost their parents and whose world was crumbling. AIDS was crippling my country, yet some wouldn't even believe the disease existed. It was clear to me I was following my calling; I had a chance to show kindness and compassion, so I took the risks.

Taken from Warrior Princess: Fighting for Life with Courage and Hope by Princess Kasune Zulu with Belinda Collins. Copyright(c) 2010 by Princess Kasune Zulu and Belinda Collins. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press PO Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.