“It is not good to keep silent about AIDS,” says Maria Nyariak, a 27-year-old mother of four children and a cook at Oxfam’s office in Luonyaker in Warrap State.
In this remote part of South Sudan, most people – especially those in the villages – know little about HIV/AIDS and misconceptions still flourish, making it even more dangerous.
“In some communities a man cannot even use a condom because he will be suspected of AIDS, and it can even break the relationship,” says Barnabas Reech.
It was only in 1999, when refugees from the ongoing war started to return home, that people here first heard about the illness. Even today, many villagers are not aware of its symptoms, management or prevention.
People believe that those with HIV/AIDS are usually thin, with white eyes, dry mouth, skin wounds and hair falling out. Many others still do not even believe the illness exists, because they say they have never seen anyone die of AIDS.
“There was a time when talking about it was a taboo,” says John Makuei Wek, an Oxfam hygiene promoter in Luonyaker. “In the past one organisation was prevented by the people from talking about HIV/AIDS.”
But things are slowly changing. Today Oxfam staff in Luonyaker held a celebration to mark World AIDS Day. There are more than 40 million people living with HIV/AIDS and at least 60 percent of the cases are in sub-Saharan Africa. South Sudan – though the youngest of nations – is not spared from the global spread of the disease.
Like Maria, John believes that now is the right time to talk about AIDS, and Oxfam staff are beginning to raise awareness of the illness in the community.